Faith Alive

Catholic News Service

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    Heaven is so hard to imagine!

    What does it mean when we say we "look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come"?

    Rather than a physical space, recent popes and theologians explain heaven as a state of complete happiness, being in full communion with God.


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    Do we look forward to the life of the world to come?

    By David Gibson

    Catholic News Service

    Heaven is so hard to imagine! For heaven is to such a great extent unknown to us.

    Yet, we who are Catholics profess in the Nicene Creed during the Mass that we "look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." But do we? Pope Benedict XVI wondered about that.

    In his 2007 encyclical "Spe Salvi" on Christian hope, Pope Benedict posed the question directly. He asked, "Do we really want this -- to live eternally?" His concern was that eternal life might sound "monotonous" to many or even "unbearable."

    In fact, the pope speculated, there may be many who "reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive."

    His comments launched a novel conversation, yet a compelling one. Some commentators asked in a slightly humorous vein, Will heaven be boring? Will there be anything to do in heaven? Naturally, the conversation ultimately progressed to asking what eternal life truly implies.

    Pope Benedict observed that on the one hand eternal life "drives us," though "we do not know the thing toward which we feel driven." In one way or another, "we cannot stop reaching out for it."

    However, he acknowledged, we can only attempt to imagine an eternity that "is not an unending succession of days in the calendar but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction."

    This will be "like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time -- the before and the after -- no longer exists," Pope Benedict explained. He said, "Such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy."

    The pope noted how "Jesus expresses" this in the Gospel of John where he says, "I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you" (16:22). "Think along these lines" in attempting "to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect," the pope advised.

    Pope Benedict was not alone among recent popes in attempting to spark a renewed conversation about heaven. St. John Paul II captured the rapt, though somewhat puzzled, attention of believers and nonbelievers alike when in July and August 1999 he delivered a series of talks on heaven, hell and purgatory.

    It really got people thinking and talking when he observed that heaven is not a "physical place in the clouds" but a "state" of living in full "communion with God, which is the goal of human life."

    Quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul called heaven "the state of supreme, definitive happiness" (No. 1024).

    He acknowledged that a spatial image of heaven indeed is found in Scripture. He stressed, moreover, that "it is always necessary to maintain a certain restraint" when describing "ultimate realities" like heaven, "since their depiction is always unsatisfactory."

    But today, he proposed, "personalist language is better suited to describing the state of happiness and peace we will enjoy in our definitive communion with God."

    What is known "in the context of revelation," he commented, is "that the 'heaven' or 'happiness' in which we will find ourselves is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity."

    It seems that the things we look forward to prompt us to get up in the morning. They are the stuff of hope. But the things we dread or that remain basically unknown to us can create anxieties and give rise to troublesome fears.

    So a conversation about heaven as a source of hope to look forward to seems important. Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, speaking during his younger years as an archbishop to the 1999 special assembly for Europe of the world Synod of Bishops, encouraged such a conversation, one whose aim is not simply to "engender fear."

    Instead, he said, the church's teaching about death and eternity can offer people the hope that "day by day the key to true judgment is always mercy."

    A challenge in looking forward to the life of the world to come is that many of us hardly are ready to leave behind the joys or even the obligations of life here and now. Pope Benedict recognized this, writing that what often is desired may not be "eternal life at all, but this present life."

    But must present life and eternal life stand in opposition? Redemptorist Father Anthony J. Kelly, an Australian theologian, sought in "God Is Love" to show how they intertwine.

    "The seed of eternal life is germinating" now, he suggested in his book. "The life of the world to come is already present as we participate in the activity of God's loving."

    Calling love "the very life of the new creation," Father Kelly spoke of "the world to come" as "the realm of life to the full."

    (Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.)


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    Theologians suggest imagining a closer relationship with God when picturing heaven

    By Kurt Jensen

    Catholic News Service

    The old Flatt and Scruggs bluegrass spiritual captures an image many devoutly believe in its chorus: "Heaven (supernal)/ Heaven (eternal)/ I'm so glad it's real."

    But the notion of a happy home far away in the sky after our mortal passing isn't everyone's idea of "the life of the world to come" asserted as the profession of Christian faith in the Nicene Creed. And uncertainty fuels the dread of death.

    Two theologians suggest focusing less on the idea of literal skyward real estate (that's the supernal part) and instead joyfully looking forward to a closer relationship (the eternal part) with God, which is, of course, finding heaven on earth.

    "What would it be like to live in a community suffused with love?" asks Julia Upton, professor of theology at St. John's University in Jamaica, New York.

    Many people think of heaven as "the carrot God holds out for us," says Kelly Johnson, who teaches theology and ethics at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. "It's the carrot, it's the bribe. That's not joyful. It's not a picture of God that inspires. That's not a great way to think about heaven."

    Upton used to ask her students about their impressions and cautioned them about thinking about a physical space. The "many mansions" mentioned in John 14:2 "are even more of a metaphor."

    "I think of it in terms of a grand review. Of seeing how it all fits together. I don't have a Disneyland image of it."

    The starting place for many people, Johnson says, is, "Life is a vale of tears. Heaven is the solution. Life is the problem and death is the answer. These are the views when we think about heaven."

    Go for joyfulness instead, she advises.

    "The image I really like is when you're at a great wedding, and if you can see how happy the couple are, and there's this tenderness between them, and delight. Just the joy of being together."

    And don't assume that the departed are so distant.

    "I don't think that the dead are that far away from us," says Upton. "I think they're pretty close. We often are so consumed by the loss and the absence that it takes a while to acknowledge their presence.

    Following the deaths of both her parents, she said she grew to think of them as "companions and close friends. You can be aware of that person's presence just when you kind of needed that presence."

    Johnson likes to remind people of the saying of St. Catherine of Siena, popularized by Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement who spent her life helping the poor in urban slums, "All the way to heaven is heaven, because he (Christ) said, 'I am the way.'"

    "What she means, of course," explains Johnson, "is that the real message of Christ is that God is with us, and Jesus has come to our world most where we are broken."

    "The way we stand in the midst of God is standing in the world's suffering."

    She also is an admirer of Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program in Los Angeles. "He can tell stories that break your heart."

    The principal lesson she's learned from Father Boyle: "If we want to be happy talking about heaven, we have to practice the joy of being with Jesus. We can't stand on the sidelines. Faith is not a spectator sport."

    As for spectacularly (and supernal) heavenly imagery, Johnson prefers one of the oldest, coming from Dante Alighieri's epic poem "The Divine Comedy": the celestial rose, made famous by the 19th-century illustration by Gustave Dore. Souls of the faithful form the petals, and are attended by flying angels who distribute peace and love.

    We have difficulty envisioning a heavenly home because "most of us just can't fathom that much beauty and joy," she says.

    (Jensen is a freelance writer.)


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    What does Scripture reveal about heaven?

    By Paul Senz

    Catholic News Service

    In the great creeds of the Catholic faith, we profess our belief in the "life of the world to come" and "life everlasting." This is not something merely passively believed in; rather, it is a profound hope in the truest sense of the word: the blessed trust in God's mercy and providence.

    Why is this "world to come" something that we should look forward to? What do we learn from sacred Scripture?

    St. Paul tells us -- echoing the prophet Isaiah -- that "what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9). This is a perfectly true observation: heaven, the life of the world to come, is infinitely beyond any human comprehension. This is probably the most fundamental thing about heaven we learn from Scripture.

    But while we cannot fully comprehend it or imagine it, there are certain things we do know.

    In the opening lines of his "Confessions," St. Augustine profoundly wrote, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." This rest "in the Lord" finally comes at our entrance into heaven. It is here that we experience what has become called the beatific vision, seeing God "face to face."

    In his first letter, St. John writes that we "shall see God as he is" (1 Jn 3:2). This is one of the great mysteries of heaven: How can we truly see God? God told Moses that "you cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live" (Ex 33:20). But Jesus gives us a beautiful, moving insight into God's ultimate revelation of himself to each of us.

    In what has become known as the Farewell Discourse, Jesus says, "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be" (Jn 14:2-3).

    God has prepared a place for us in his home. Nothing should keep us from our place in the house of our Lord.

    We would do well to always remember the insight of St. Paul. Heaven is, fundamentally, perfect fulfillment of our deepest desire: to be in union with God.

    It is nothing like anything we have seen or heard, or that we can fathom. It is not an eternity of sitting on a cloud playing a harp; it is not gold fences keeping out those not righteous enough to "earn their wings." It goes infinitely beyond our own images of it.

    And, as a result, picturing such mundane and pedestrian visions of heaven can make it seem, well, mundane and pedestrian! It could even cause someone's desire for heaven to diminish -- and we don't want that. We should all be constantly striving for heaven.

    (Senz is a freelance writer living in Oregon with his family.)


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    "Our faith is the anchor in heaven. We have anchored our life in heaven," said Pope Francis at a general audience in St. Peter's Square April 26.

    Continuing his series of talks on the nature of Christian hope, the pope explained that hope is not a vague sentiment wishing to improve things of the world.

    "Christian hope is rooted not in the allure of the future but in the certainty of what God has promised us and accomplished in Jesus Christ," he said.

    God is not an "absent god," Pope Francis said. He is not a god who is "confined to a far-off heaven," but one who will care for us until "the close of the age!"

    If God guaranteed he would not abandon us, and tells us, "Follow me," said the pope, "Why should we be afraid?"

    Even in the uncertain and dark times of our lives, "we go forward because we are certain that our life has an anchor in heaven, on that shore where we will arrive," he said.


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Faith Alive is a service from Catholic News Service (CNS). CNS, the oldest and largest religious news service in the world, is a leading source of news for Catholic print and electronic media across the globe. With bureaus in Washington and Rome, as well as a global correspondent network, CNS since 1920 has set the standard in Catholic journalism.

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