In the book of Sirach we read: “In whatever you do, remember your last end, and you will never sin.” (7:36) Many are reluctant to think about or talk about death and what follows it, finding it a gloomy topic. Too, some are unwilling to dwell on their final end, lest it should suggest some changes in their life they are unwilling to make. Yet, the Holy Spirit, warning us through the sacred writer, recommends that we reflect from time to time on the end of our earthly span of years, and the full account of our life that we will have to give immediately after it. While we cannot predict the future, one future event that we know for certain will come to pass is our death and the judgment that immediately follows it. And since the whole of our eternity depends on the state of our soul at that moment, it would be ultimate folly not to prepare for it.
Some lead their lives as if that day will never come, while others take it for granted that they will make the needed changes in their life at some future time. Yet they could be called to meet their Maker prematurely and suddenly and be caught unprepared. And for those who live out the full term of a lengthy life, each day they put off amending their ways is a day wasted, a day that could have added to the one kind of riches they can take with them. And too, the longer they wait to amend their ways, the more difficult—and perhaps less complete—that amendment will be.
We know from our Christian faith that all that we have, all that we are (that is good) is a gift from God. As St. Paul expressed it: “What have you that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). This includes gifts of body and mind, material possessions, and gifts in the order of grace.
He has shared so much with us, so many gifts; and He lets our eternity depend on how we use them, and share them with others. He has made us stewards of those gifts, and our eternity depends on how we acknowledge His dominion over them . . . on how fruitful is our stewardship. Over all these gifts, God alone has complete and absolute dominion.
Among the many gifts God has shared with us is our very life itself, a most precious gift over which we are merely the custodian. Our powers of intellect and free-will are gifts whereby we are made to God’s likeness and image. And especially the supernatural gifts in the order of grace make us share His own divine nature. Countless other gifts in the natural order include: our family, our home, our work, our material possessions, our talents of mind and body, our education, etc. etc. All of these are gifts of God’s Providence for which we will have to render an account . . . gifts to be used according to God’s plan. We give glory to God when we acknowledge His dominion over them, and use them as He wills.
Yet, how often do we not hear something like this? “This is mine; I can do with it whatever I wish.” It is bad enough when they are speaking of material possessions; but there are many who speak in that way of the unborn child of the womb. “This is my body. I can do with it as I wish., What a terrible miscarriage of justice. What a terrible moment when such a person has to give an account of her stewardship.
If we are not guided by the light of faith, we can allow ourselves to gradually be blinded as to the needs of others, and see only our own. We can allow our hearts to be hardened, and disregard the rights of others . . . even the right to life.
The gift of faith, too, is to be shared. It is not for yourself alone. It is a light that should not be “put under a bushel basket,” but “put on a lamp stand where it gives light to all in the house.” (Mt. 5:15) All of which means, we are to live our faith openly for all to see, and not to hide it or be ashamed of it, that others might be enlightened by the truth that we have received and seek to live. For this gift too, we will have to render an account.
Time, likewise, is a gift of God. Each of us has been allotted a certain amount of time, a certain number of years, months and days —to work out our eternal destiny. This segment of time is infinitesimally small compared to eternity, yet our eternal lot depends on how we use it. Upon how wise or unwise we use these few years, upon the choices we make, our eternal hereafter depends. As St. Paul warned the Ephesians:
A worker may see time as valuable mainly because he gets paid by the hour. The true Christian sees, in addition, the value of time in terms of the riches he can gain for the soul, the only kind of riches he can take with him to the life beyond. He sees each hour allotted to him as an opportunity to grow in grace, to help others, to place prayer and works of reparation in the hands of the Mother of God for the good of souls, to give glory to God by doing His will.
As we have pointed out in a previous issue (Vol. 41, n.1), “since time is a gift of God, it will have to be accounted for just as our material possessions and talents. We can squander time just as we can squander money, or we can use both profitably. There is this difference, however; we can keep the money without spending it, but not time. It passes on and does not return. Only its fruits (good or bad) remain. For this reason St. Paul wrote to the Galatians:
How much the souls in purgatory would give for just a few extra moments of time to repent of their sins and amend their lives, and thereby to grow in grace and thus increase their eternal glory. And yet, how often do we find people with “time on their hands,” at a loss as to how to use it.
We are well aware that all do not receive God’s gifts equally. He shares His gifts more with some, not only for their own needs, but that they may be instruments of His providence, freely sharing with those who have received less. God actually allows this situation to exist: that many will receive what they need, only on condition that those who have received more, willingly share what they have received. St. Basil (Doctor of the Church) spoke of this centuries ago:
Our faith and trust in God should strengthen in us this conviction that the more we share with others in need, the more God is going to look after our needs. Do we imagine for a moment that He who has given us all we have, will not replenish our coffers when we dip into them to help His children in need? Perhaps the greatest living example of this is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She pours out all she receives to help the needy, and God continues to supply her with what is needed for herself, her sisters, her poor sick. Whether we like it or not, at the end of our earthy life we not only cannot take our material possessions with us, but we must give an account of how we used them.
What do the Scriptures and theology tell us about the judgment that each of us will undergo after death, when we will be called to render an account of our stewardship? The Roman Catechism, which is the Catechism of the Council of Trent (Part 1, art. 2) states that there will be two different occasions after death, on which everyone must appear in the presence of the Lord to render an account of his thoughts, words, actions and omissions, and to receive immediate judgment. The first takes place when each departs from this life; for then . . . all he has ever done, spoken, thought or desired is exposed to the divine judgment, and the eternal fate of the deceased is immediately known. This is referred to as the “particular judgment” in contrast with the “general judgment” which comes at the end of the world, and about which we are not concerned here.
Since the early Fathers of the Church, it has been the teaching of the Church that immediately after death a “particular judgment" takes place in which the eternal destiny of the deceased person is made known. We point this out for it is the common teaching of most Protestant sects, who do not believe in Purgatory, that (following the teaching of Calvin) between death and the general resurrection at the end of the world, the soul of the deceased remains in a kind of inert state, a state of suspended animation. They believe that the deceased person will not know his/her eternal destiny until the general judgment. They thus deny the admission of any deceased person to the vision of God before the end of the world and the general judgment. One teaching of the Catholic Church that clearly counters this last statement is that at the canonization of a saint, the Pope declares by an infallible declaration, that the new saint is in heaven.
While the Scriptures do not expressly refer to the particular judgment, they do clearly imply it. For example, speaking to the good thief on Calvary, Christ said: “This day you will be with Me in paradise.” (Lc. 23 43) And in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man: “it came to pass that the poor man died and was borne away by me angels to Abraham’s bosom; but the rich man also died and was buried in hell.” (Lc. 16:22) Theologians conclude from these texts that immediate reward or punishment presupposes an immediate judgment determining that reward or punishment. The particular judgment is secret, for the soul stands alone before God. In contrast with this, the general judgment will be public, and one’s works (good or evil) will be made known to the whole of mankind.
This judgment takes place at the moment of death, that is, at the moment the soul is separated from the body when it is no longer capable of further merit or demerit. The soul does not go to some place to be judged, for God is everywhere. As to how it takes place, we must not let our imagination portray this judgment after the manner of a worldly court of justice. There will be no witnesses, no cross-examination, no devil accusing and guardian angel defending, etc. Nor will Christ the Judge be seen. Theologians explain the particular judgment in this way:
We tend to think of a court of justice in worldly terms, where one is judged for some wrongdoing. And since all of us are guilty of wrongdoings for which we have to ask God’s pardon, many tend to think of the particular judgment after death mainly in terms of condemnation. Yet, it is also a moment in which the justice of God will assure us that every good thing we have ever done in the state of grace will be rewarded. Did not our Blessed Lord say that even a cup of cold water given in His name would not go unrewarded. For those who have spent their lives doing good, and trying to live according to God’s commandments as best they could, this judgment will bring forth many surprises of good deeds long forgotten and now brought to light.
The above comments refer to those who arrive at the particular judgment after death in the state of grace. Let us consider briefly the moment before death while the soul is still united with the body, and the door to merit or demerit has not yet been finally closed. What about a person who comes to that moment not in the state of grace, one who has had little regard for God’s commandments?
Even in such cases the mercy of God does not exclude one from a final opportunity to repent. That is to say, sufficient actual graces are offered to initiate his return to God. The sinner can either accept or reject those actual graces. It is, perhaps, at this moment that the Mother of God snatches many a soul from the brink of eternal damnation. Too, it may well be that many a soul is saved at this last moment through the prayers and sacrifices of others making up for what is wanting in that dying member of Christ’s Body. (Col. 1:24)
Yet it would be presumption of the first magnitude to rely on such a conversion. For if the Mother of God and one’s guardian angel and friends on earth are praying for the dying soul, the Evil One who has had him in his grasp for so long will increase his efforts to prolong the sinner’s rebellion and hardness of heart.
But what about the loss of consciousness on the part of the sinner? As death approaches there comes a weakening, or even a paralysis of our human powers, making it (apparently) impossible for the dying person to consciously submit to the will of God. Some theologians are of the opinion that, in spite of the weakness of the body and apparent lack of all consciousness, God could well communicate with the soul that is still united with the body. As one theologian expresses it:
One should never, therefore, lose hope for those who have gone astray in their Christian life, but should strive to place in the hands of the Mother of God frequent prayers and sacrifices offered in reparation for needy souls in union with the Sacrifice of Christ. Our Lady can magnify their value a hundred-fold when she offers them to her Divine Son, but she needs our prayers and sacrifices offered to that end. As she revealed at Fatima:
If through our prayers and sacrifices, we have contributed to the salvation of a single soul, that person will be grateful to us for all eternity. Such a one may have a long period of purification in purgatory, but will eventually —thanks to God’s mercy—attain eternal life.
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