Death is the end of man’s earthly life and the gateway to the next. The state of our soul at the time of death is what determines whether this gateway leads to heaven, hell or purgatory. For the Christian, death ought to be a moment of great joy rather than a moment of fear.
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The skeletons of thousands of Capuchin friars adorn the walls of the crypt of Our Lady of the Conception Church in Rome. Among them, an inscription reads:
“What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”
The Church constantly reminds us that death might come when we least expect it, so we must always be prepared for its arrival.
THE MYSTERY OF DEATH
Death is a reality that many of us dread and fear for our loved ones. Our Christian faith teaches us why: it’s because we were not made to die. We know this instinctively. Death feels strange; it is not the kind of thing that we get used to. It seems that we and our loved ones should be able to live forever. And our instinct is correct. Only the Church can explain this mystery to us:
Even though man’s nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. “Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned” is this “last enemy” of man to be conquered (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
Although Christ has restored our spiritual life through the sacraments, He has not yet restored our physical life. “All men alike,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature.”
WHAT IS MEANS TO DIE
Death is the separation of the soul from the body. When our soul departs from it, our body will die. But our immortal soul will continue to exist and we will live apart from our bodies as “separated souls.” Even after death we will continue to have the full use of our intellect and will.
However, God will not allow us to remain in this bodiless state forever. Such a separation us unnatural for us because He created us as a unity of body and soul. He has promised us that one day, at the end of time, our souls and bodies will be reunited.
THE AGONY OF DEATH
Because the soul and body were not meant to be separated, the soul experiences extraordinary pain when it departs from the body. Scripture tells us that Jesus cried out with a loud voice at the moment He took His final breath (Matthew 27:50). In Catholic tradition, death has been called the “final agony.”
The saints tell us that it is God’s will for us to b experience agony at the moment of our death, so that we will understand the suffering Jesus endured for us on the Cross:
“Christ’s conflict with death represented our last conflict, teaching us that the agony of death is the keenest agony that man has ever felt or will ever feel.
It is the will of God that man should suffer so intensely at the close of his life, in order that we may recognize and appreciate the magnitude of Christ’s love for us, the inestimable benefit He has conferred on us by enduring death for our sakes.
For it would have been impossible for man fully to know the infinite love of God, unless he too had drunk to some extent of the bitter chalice which Christ drank.” – Pope St. Gregory the Great
THE CHRISTIAN MEANING OF DEATH
Death takes on a completely new meaning for those who have united themselves to Christ through the sacraments. A Christian’s death – although sorrowful, like Our Lord’s death – is ultimately a cause for joy. Death is the moment when we will meet our Savior face to face.
Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning:
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
“The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11).
…through Baptism, the Christian has already “died with Christ” sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and it we die in Christ’s grace, physical death completes this “dying with Christ” and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act.
In death, God calls man to himself. Therefore, the Christian can experience a desire for death like St. Paul’s:
“My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).
He can transform his own death into an act of obedience and love towards the Father, after the example of Christ. – Catechism of the Catholic Church
THE BLESSING OF DEATH
For the faithful Christian, death comes as a blessing. Loving and serving God well in this life will bring us many heavy crosses. Death will be a sweet release from the sufferings of this life, by which our charity for God and our neighbor will be richly rewarded.
“When we view death according to the senses, it terrifies and affrights us, but when we view it with the eye of faith, it consoles us and makes us desire it. It appears terrible to sinners, but lovely and very precious to the saints…although death was given to man as a punishment for sin, yet, notwithstanding this, the miseries of this life are such… that death would appear to be given to us rather as a relief than a punishment. God calls those who die in His grace blessed, because their labors are finished, and they go to their rest.
‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord…that they may rest from their labors’ (Revelation 14:13).” – St. Alphonsus Liguori
The Christian view of death gives us hope, not only for our own deaths but also for our loved ones whom we prayerfully entrust to God’s mercy. Although death brings much sorrow, we must also leave room for joy, remembering that death is the beginning of eternal life with Christ.
DEATH IS THE END OF OUR EARTHLY PILGRIMAGE
Our earthly life is given to us as our opportunity to draw closer to God, and to make use of the graces He gives us to live holy lives. But this gift is not infinite. After death there will be no opportunity to choose differently. We won’t have any more time to build virtue in our souls or to repent of our sins. We must use our lives to draw close to God before our lives end, since we will take into the next life everything that we accumulated in our souls while we lived.
Death is the end of man’s earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
The state of our soul at the time of our death is permanent, and it is in this state that we will face our judgment. How we lived our lives, whether for God or for ourselves, will determine what happens to our souls when we die.
OUR SOULS ARE JUDGED AT THE MOMENT OF DEATH
Scripture teaches us that our eternal destiny will be decided immediately at the moment of our death – our soul will be laid bare before Jesus Christ.
“For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
This is called the particular judgment because it is the judgment of each individual soul at the end of this earthly life. This distinguishes it from the general or final judgment that will take place publicly at the end of time.
Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith.
Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through purification or immediately – or immediate and everlasting damnation (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
THE PARTICULAR JUDGMENT ACCORDING TO BLESSED JOHN HENRY NEWMAN
What will a soul experience at their particular judgment? Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman composed a reflection on the subject that can serve as a powerful examination of conscience:
“Each of us must come to the evening of life. Each of us must enter on eternity. Each of us must come to that quiet, awful time, when we will appear before the Lord of the vineyard, and answer for the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or bad…
Every one of you must undergo the particular judgment, and it will be the stillest, awfullest time which you ever experience. It will be the dread moment of expectation when your fate for eternity is in the balance, and when you are about to be sent forth as the companion of either saints or devils, without possibility of change. There can be no change; there can be no reversal. As that judgment decides it, so it will be forever and ever. Such is the particular judgment…
When we find ourselves by ourselves, one by one, in his presence, and have brought before us most vividly all the thoughts, words, and deeds of this past life. Who will be able to bear the sight of himself? And yet we shall be obliged steadily to confront ourselves and to see ourselves.
In this life we shrink from knowing our real selves. We do not like to know how sinful we are. We love those who prophesy smooth things to us, and we are angry with those who tell us of our faults. But on that day, not one fault only, but all the secret, as well as evident, defects of our character will be clearly brought out. We shall see what we feared to see here, and much more. And then, when the full sight of ourselves comes to us, who will not wish that he had known more of himself here, rather than leaving it for the inevitable day to reveal it all to him! I am speaking, not only of the bad, but of the good…
We do not know how great an evil sin is. We do not know how subtle and penetrating an evil it is. It is like dust covering everything, defiling every part of us, and requiring constant attention, constant cleansing…
Good works follow us, bad works follow us, but everything else is worth nothing; everything else is but chaff. The whirl and dance of worldly matters is but like the whirling of chaff or dust, nothing comes of it; it lasts through the day, but it is not to be found in the evening. And yet how many immortal souls spend their lives in nothing better than making themselves giddy with this whirl…
When we come into God’s presence, we shall be asked two things, whether we were in the Church, and whether we worked in the Church. Everything else is worthless…The single question will be, are we Catholics and are we good Catholics?
If we have not been, it will avail nothing that we have been ever so honored here, ever so successful, have had ever so good a name. And if we have been, it will matter nothing though we have been ever so despised, ever so poor, ever so hardly pressed, ever so troubled, ever so unfriended. Christ will make up everything to us, if we have been faithful to Him; and He will take everything away from us, if we have lived to the world. Then will be fulfilled the awful words of the parable. Many that are last shall be first, for many are called but few are chosen.”
What a soul experiences at death and its particular judgment will not be the same for all. The experience will either be joyful or terrible, depending on whether the soul died as a friend or as an enemy of God.
Original Source: The Four Last Things - Good Catholic Digital Content Series