Posts filed under: death

We can count upon nature to set the atmosphere: the days are shorter; the dark comes earlier; the sun is shy; the winds more blustery and cold; the trees get stark; the flowers shrivel; and the grass subsides. Nature is dying, winter approaches. No wonder Holy Mother Church advises us to contemplate death. Does that scare us? Is that, literally, morbid? Not for the believer: Death is as natural as birth.

— Archbishop Timothy Dolan (New York)

Having been urged to post a little bit of last weekend’s retreat online, I resisted for a while, but anyway here you go.

This is just an 11-minute fragment talking about heaven and why we should think about more often than we do. The retreat was for 75 seminarians, as you’ll be able to tell.

Just in case you needed more preaching in your Sunday… :-)

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

— Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Is it true that the virgin mary and saint michael bring people up to heaven when they die? - Anonymous

Good question! I hadn’t heard that. But then I haven’t died yet either. :-)

Seriously, though, we’re not told much about the details of the more “technical” aspects of how we go to the afterlife. In part probably because we wouldn’t understand it (they’re things that we can’t see or touch or imagine well) and also because we would probably get the wrong idea anyway (or get scared, or worse).

Now we certainly do pray in the Hail Mary, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” So we’re invoking her prayers but we’re not hearing anything about her accompanying the soul “in transit.”

Then, too, we will definitely share Heaven with Mary and St. Michael and all the saints! To read what we can in fact say with certainty, check out #1020-1050 of the Catechism.

God bless you!

- Father Shane

One Reason Why the Church Opposes the Death Penalty

This man is 47 hours from being executed, and the evidence that he’s probably innocent of a 1989 murder continues to mount.

Amnesty International and the NAACP are organizing online petitions, etc., etc.

Human justice just isn’t perfect. Remember that Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you…”?

One of the reasons why is that sometimes we don’t know if it’s the right eye and the right tooth we’re taking…

(For those who are wondering, the Church’s teaching runs far deeper on a moral level and this isn’t the only reason. But it’s good enough in some cases!)

I was working as an orderly in a Boulder emergency room in the early 1970s, and a woman who had had an incomplete abortion was brought in. Those of us working in the emergency room were pro-life and had had nothing to do with the abortion, but were trying to help the woman afterward.
It was there I first saw the remains of an unborn child, about three and a half months along. It really impacted me. It was impressed in my mind and my heart and that this was a human life. It had now been forever destroyed. Ever since then I’ve been outspoken on human-life issues, and tried to help people to understand the dignity of human life.

— Bishop Samuel Aquila (Fargo)

I read an article a while back that said that people born with down syndrome have incorruptible souls, in the sense that they are in that perpetual child-like innocent state and are oblivious to the perverse things of the world. Can people with down syndrome enter the religious life as priests or brothers? If not, why? - Anonymous

Technically, all of us have “incorruptible” souls because your soul can’t die or be killed. The death with which this life ends is the separation of your soul and body, but the soul keeps living.

But (some) people with Down syndrome and similar conditions are also “innocent” souls in the sense that they’re not capable of deliberate sin because they don’t have full use of the powers of reason by which we can choose to offend God. (I say “some” because all of these things happen by degrees, and some persons with mental handicaps could possibly have use of reason to some extent at some times.) Like all of us, however, they are born with original sin and need Baptism.

To be a priest requires lots of study (it took me 13 years) and the capability of guiding others, so someone without full use of the powers of reason really wouldn’t be able to go there. Their vocation is different.

To be a religious brother or sister, you would have to be able to live life in community and theoretically be able to contribute to the specific mission that the congregation has. Each congregation (there are the famous ones, like Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Benedictines, etc., as well as lots of ones you’ve never heard of) has the responsibility to only admit those who will be able to do that (canon 597 of canon law). I don’t know of any congregation which would, on those grounds, be able to admit persons with Down syndrome, and my guess is that the vow of obedience (which requires submission of the will, something which in turn requires the powers of reason) couldn’t be lived in a full and meaningful sense by someone in a child-like state.

Nevertheless, everyone in the Church has their specific calling and their specific path to God. Just because they probably couldn’t be sisters or brothers doesn’t mean that they’re any less special. In fact, they’re more special, and I’ve seen so many families where it’s the son or daughter with Down syndrome that is the catalyst to bringing joy and deeper faith to the family. Paradoxical, but that’s how God’s blessings work, so often.

God bless you!

- Father Shane

If someone is in the army, is it a sin for them to be going to war and killing people? - Anonymous

As with a lot of moral questions, this one isn’t simple enough to give a yes/no answer, and theologians have expended countless hours of thought and argument to get to the point we’re at now.

The basic doctrine is contained in what the Catechism says in #2307-2317. The core of it regarding military personnel is this:

Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace. (from #2310)

So if soldiers are fighting in their country’s legitimate self-defense, they may be forced to kill in that endeavor, but there are of course limits: Just because they’re at war doesn’t mean they can kill anyone and everyone. The basic code of the Geneva Convention is pretty close to what Catholics understand by “justice during war”: Only enemy combatants can be killed, not if they’re trying to surrender or are unable to put up resistance, not if they’re rendering medical assistance to the wounded, not using weapons of mass destruction, etc.

So soldiers, in their scope of action, have a deep responsibility to limit lethal action. Even more so, the leaders and politicians who initiate armed conflict have a very grave responsibility to do so only in cases of authentically having exhausted all possible means to bring about a peaceful outcome, authentically acting in critical self-defense, etc. (So self-serving wars of conquest, etc., are unjustifiable.)

The numbers of the Catechism cited above are very carefully written and fairly brief, so they’re worth reading. If you’re interested in going deeper, this is a good place to start. You may also be interested in Mission Capodanno, an excellent ministry to military personnel and their families.

As you can guess, priests who are military chaplains and all those who provide spiritual guidance and assistance to soldiers have a very demanding job, but one that is a great work of mercy. Helping soldiers work through the psychological consequences of having been obliged to take human life in the defense of their country, or suffering from doubt regarding the justice of their actions in particular circumstances, not to mention the myriad other stresses and strains of military life, is really complicated to say the least. So a big thanks to all of our military chaplains… Find out more about what they do here, and why we’re so short on them in the US.

And just in case this wasn’t clear enough, the answer really only has to do with whether it’s a “sin” that some people die in war… whether it’s a sin or not, it’s always a tragedy. It’s always somebody’s son or daughter or brother or sister who’s getting killed. It’s always somebody that is being snuffed out. Just because it’s morally licit doesn’t mean that the effects aren’t horrible. (That’s because some sort of sin/egoism is always involved with war, just not necessarily on the individual soldier’s part.)

God bless you!

- Father Shane

Father, what are your views on Santa Muerta? I know Catholics that venerate and love her and Catholics who condemn her veneration as devil worship.. as a member of the Latino Catholic Community, I am not sure how I should feel about Santa Muerta. - Anonymous

It’s a non-Christian form of superstition — a very dangerous one — that masquerades as something Christian. Thanks be to God, the bishops have been speaking out very clearly.

Do you read Spanish? Here’s one article and another that give some background. 

Besides, “la santa muerte” is a rather tawdry substitute for Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, don’t you think?

God bless you!

- Father Shane

Hi Father Shane! I ran across your blog a couple weeks ago and I've been meaning to ask you something that's been on my mind. I'm scared of death. I believe in Heaven and everything, but sometimes I have little panic attacks about eternity and not living on Earth anymore. Whenever I panic, I pray and it helps me a little bit, but I guess I just want to hear from a priest some reassuring words about life after death. Is there anything you can tell me that will help me stop from panicking about death? I hope this question makes sense and is not too scatterbrained. Thank you! - Anonymous

Hey, you’re normal! If you weren’t scared of death, there would be something wrong with you…

As Christians, when we talk about “hope,” what we mean is trusting in God’s promises, here in this life but especially in eternity. So ask our Lord for that gift! Because it is a gift… The nature of hope is to hope in what we haven’t seen, not what we have. So that takes trust.

But what you say made me think immediately of Pope Benedict’s Spe Salvi, a letter he wrote in 2007 about hope. There’s a part where he talks specifically about how the word eternal “frightens us.” Sound familiar? That passage is in paragraph #12, but you would want to start reading at #10 or so and then continue on past #12 a bit. Of course if you want to read the whole thing it might be helpful.

God bless you, and see you in heaven, God willing, if not before!

- Father Shane


Today’s dangers to our faith, especially that of our young people, are often not due to the teaching of some renegade, but instead are subtly embedded in the popular culture, making them more difficult to resist. A case in point: In the CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) Report of last fall, reference was made to the work of Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. In his 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Smith identified the five key beliefs that the majority of American teens subscribe to: 1) A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth; 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions; 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; 4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem; 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

This set of beliefs that pervades the majority of American young adults is sometimes referred to as “moralistic therapeutic deism,” (MTD) or more irreverently, as “whatever” religion.

Looking at this belief system, some might ask, “What’s the big deal? Aren’t many of these things okay?” Some, in fact, are truths, e.g., a God exists who created the world, and God does want us to be good. The danger lies in part in what has been omitted, which is a great deal (note, no mention of a need for Jesus Christ, or any savior, for just one example). This line of belief is also a danger in that it is very self-centered: God is principally understood in terms of one’s own project of self-fulfillment and happiness.

Here’s the rest of the article, by Bishop James Johnston of Cape Girardeau. Powerful and spot-on.

Tragedy in DC


The Vatican nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, died late last night at age 73 after surprise complications following a delicate lung surgery. The official USCCB news release is here. His funeral will be celebrated in Washington on August 6.

Archbishop Sambi recognized the global role of the United States and the U.S. church and told the bishops in 2006 an anecdote from his time as Vatican representative to Indonesia. He recalled a Christmas he spent in a remote village in Indonesia where in street shops, he said, “I found Coca-Cola and Marlboros.”

“I think the United States and the church of the United States has something more to bring to the world than Marlboros and Coca-Cola,” he told the bishops.

Requiescat in pace.

It’s hard to overstate the tremendous impact that the appointments that Archbishop Sambi suggested to Pope Benedict have had on the current makeup of the U.S. bishops. He did incredibly good work for us here in the States. Truly may he rest in peace.

His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’ (Matthew 25:23)

"If you have nothing to die for, you’re already dead…"

Brother John Klein’s Love is Brave. More downloads here.

He just finished his philosophy studies at the faculty where I teach in NY… and if you’re at WYD in Madrid you might even get to see him perform. Local boy does good!

And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?

Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.

There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger.

— T.S. Eliot (“Choruses from the Rock”)

Hi, Father. A recent murder trial in my area has gotten me thinking about moral theology. There has been a lot of media coverage about the trial, and the jury just gave the man the death penalty. Now, I've heard a lot about Catholic positions on capital punishment, so my question doesn't have to do with arguments against the death penalty or anything. Instead, I was wondering—let's say I was a juror in that trial. The jury has to decide unanimously if the death penalty is going to be given. Is it a sin for me, as an individual juror, to decide to give a man the death penalty? Thanks for your time, Father, and for your Internet ministry. - Anonymous

Interesting question! I cheated and asked a moral theologian to give a response, so he gave a really long one. The core of the answer is in the last 3 points, but the rest is worth reading too. Here’s what he wrote:

  1. CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) 2266 recalls that it is legitimate for certain public authorities to inflict upon criminals penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes. 
  2. CCC 2267 recalls that punishment is only inflicted once the identity and the responsibility of the offender has been fully ascertained. In petty offences, a public official can inflict the penalty. For example, a police officer or a traffic warden only has to see that someone is parking or driving illegally to impose a fine. In other cases the responsibility and identity of offenders, and maybe the nature of the punishment to be imposed, is more difficult to ascertain. Trials are the standard means of ascertaining all this, while giving the accused the right to defend themselves.
  3. In trials, the judge and the jurors are delegated public authority. Say a murderer was committed red-handed by a group of citizens. They decide that justice should be done and lynch the murderer. Their situation is very different from that of a jury that decides at the end of a fair trial that the accused is guilty of murder and should receive the death penalty in accord with the existing laws. The lynch mob does not have the authority to kill the murderer. As a result, they become murderers too. Suppose he is not murdered on the spot but is arrested and tried. The judge and jury may decide that the criminal should be punished with death. However, if they assure that the accused party has received a fair trial, assess the evidence objectively and apply the laws legitimately, they are not committing murder. Their decision is morally legitimate as they are acting with public authority. This is what CCC 2266-2267 alludes to when it classifies capital punishment as one of the means at the  disposal of public authority for repressing crime and protecting public safety. A juror does not sin in condemning a duly tried criminal to death whenever the crime in question is deserving of the death penalty and punishable by it. The juror’s situation is similar to that of policemen who kill dangerous rampant criminals, or soldiers who kill enemy combatants in military engagement. Jurors, policemen and soldiers have been delegated the authority to kill criminals and aggressors for the sake of the common good when the situation so requires and in the mode proper to each office. See City of God Bk I and Summa theologiae II-II.64. 
  4. Even when capital punishment is legitimate, jurors could apply it sinfully in a number of ways. They might not give the evidence due consideration but condemn the accused unjustly under the sway of animosity, outrage, public opinion or other interests. They might callously condemn someone to capital punishment when this punishment is not commensurate to the gravity of the crime (say sentence someone to death for robbery or manslaughter).
  5. However, your correspondent’s question should also be addressed in the light of current Church teaching. John Paul II taught authoritatively in Evangelium vitae 56 that when “bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” He goes on to point out that in modern society the circumstance that make capital punishment absolutely necessary for safeguarding public security are ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’. This teaching is adopted by the final edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267). This is a demand of natural law that many non-Catholics recognize. Nowadays there is a greater consciousness, both within and without the Church, of certain demands of human dignity. This is one of them.
  6. In the light of current Church teaching then, a Catholic serving as a juror in an at least minimally developed State and who acts with a well-formed conscience would refrain from voting in favour of sentencing a guilty party to capital punishment. To choose capital punishment would be sinful to some extent or other, as such punishment is not absolutely necessary and is less in conformity with the dignity of a fellow human. Whether it is a mortal or venial sin is hard to say. That will depend on many factors peculiar to the juror. Still, given the value and sacredness of human life, I would be inclined to say that a Catholic juror who is aware of the Church’s current teaching on this matter and acted contrary to it, would be committing a grave sin. It would be uncharitable to effectively deny that the accused person is worthy to live when the Church teaches that they are. The juror’s decision would be even more sinful if capital punishment were not commensurate to the crime committed (say robbery or manslaughter). At any rate, the fact that the law allows for capital punishment does not excuse jurors from assessing whether those laws are actually in accord with natural law, or Catholic jurors from assessing whether they are in accord with Church teaching. A civil society’s laws are always imperfect and need to be reformed in the light of natural law. 
  7. Of course there might be parts of the world where there is no secure prison system. In that case, a juror could opt for capital punishment in good conscience when it is absolutely necessary. This is something that CCC 2267 allows for. 
  8. On the other hand, if the jury only decided whether the accused were guilty or innocent, but did not decide upon the punishment, a juror who believed in good conscience that the accused were guilty, would not be morally responsible if the judge then sentenced the condemned to the death penalty.

Hope it helps! God bless you!

- Father Shane

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