Our life here on Earth is a brief flicker in time that ends at the gateway to eternity.
What is eternity like? Scientists tell us it has been about 13.75 billion years, give or take a few million years, since the Big Bang created the universe. Planet Earth is almost five billion years old. Modern humans first emerged in East Africa some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, gradually spreading out across the globe. Migration of modern humans from the Black Sea area into Europe started some 45,000 years ago. By 20,000 years ago, the whole of Europe was settled by homo sapiens—modern man as we know him. Some 2,000 years ago, the Christos was born around the year 6 BCE (before the common era, or before Christ), and died around 30 CE (common era, or anno domini). Here in the United States, our average lifespan is 78 years. That gives you some idea of eternity versus our temporal lives.
While all sorts of good things and bad things can happen to our body and our soul along our journey to the final destination, the end-point for most Catholics is to get our spirit or soul to an eternity in heaven after death.
To get to heaven, one tries to avoid evil, do good, and die in a state of grace (for Catholics, free of mortal sin).
Catholic theology holds that at the instant of death, the soul, which is eternal, leaves the body, and goes before God. According to Catholic folklore, each person has a guardian angel who guides the soul to God and judgment. In His infinite wisdom, God judges the soul when it arrives.
The soul will eventually undergo two judgments. The first is called the particular judgment. It’s what happens when the just-released soul arrives before God. This judgment applies only to the soul. Later, there will be a general or final judgment at the end-times, the second coming or apocalypse. Only God knows when this final judgment will occur. At the final judgment, the soul of the deceased will be reunited with the risen body that the soul occupied in life. Until then, only the soul is involved in the afterlife.
At the particular judgment, one of three things can happen to the soul. Those who reject God’s love and die in mortal sin without repenting go to hell, cut off from the love and light of God for eternity. The saints whose love for God has been perfected in this life go straight to heaven for eternity. Those who die without mortal sin but whose love of God is imperfect go to a place called purgatory where the soul will be perfected and eventually go to heaven for eternity.
Indulgences can shorten the soul’s stay in purgatory, or permit the soul to bypass purgatory altogether. There are two types of indulgence—a partial indulgence, which shortens the stay in purgatory, or a more powerful plenary indulgence, which permits an instant release of the soul from purgatory. Indulgences may be earned (they may not be bought) only by the living, who must meet specified criteria. Indulgences may apply to the souls of the living or to the souls of the deceased depending on the nature of the indulgence. See the Enchiridion of Indulgences at ( http://tinyurl.com/m3v8g ).
To help along the way to the end of the journey, there are seven sacraments.
The first is baptism, which for most Catholics occurs a few weeks after birth. Through baptism, we join in the communion of the church and communion with God. This communion joins us with those who have been baptized who have gone before us in history, and with those who have not yet been born who will be baptized.
By early grade school, the Catholic child experiences the sacrament of reconciliation (also known as penance, penance and reconciliation, or confession). After reconciliation, the child or convert takes first communion (the Eucharist). Near the end of grade school, the young Catholic is confirmed in the faith.
Baptism and confirmation are one-time events, although baptismal vows (a credo of beliefs) may be repeated on occasion. Reconciliation and communion are repeated throughout life.
The next sacraments a Catholic is likely to encounter are marriage or, for the male who so chooses, holy orders—becoming an ordained priest committed to celibacy.
The final sacrament is anointing of the sick, formerly called last rites or extreme unction. That occurs when a person is seriously ill or at death’s door. A plenary indulgence is associated with the administration of this sacrament by a priest.
Catholics believe in two types of sin—mortal and venial. Mortal sins are serious business. Venial sins are less serious, relatively minor in nature. Either type of sin can be forgiven by the sacrament of reconciliation. If reconciliation is not available, sins may be forgiven by a perfect act of contrition, in which the person is sorry for the sins not because of a desire to avoid condemnation and hell, but because the person recognizes that the sins are offensive to an all-loving God.
Acts that constitute sin fall under two main groupings—violations of the Ten Commandments, which are enumerated in the first two books of the Old Testament ( http://tinyurl.com/b8nt9 , http://tinyurl.com/m3v8g ) and commission of any of the seven cardinal sins (wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony). Pride is the most serious of the cardinal sins. As the ancient Greeks said, hubris leads to ate—pride goeth before a downfall.
The good works individuals are to do in this life fall generally under the seven cardinal virtues—chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.
There are a number of excellent books about the theology behind the concept of purgatory. If you are interested, you might start with Dr. Gerard van den Aardweg's best-selling Hungry Souls. It recounts Church-verified accounts of earthly visitations from the spirits of the dead residing in purgatory. If you don’t have time to read the book, read a few of the reviews posted at Amazon.com at http://tinyurl.com/3ffx8sz
So, do I think the Catholic path I just covered is the best path to the afterlife? I don’t know. Other paths might well be better. All I can say is that I’m comfortable with the path I’ve chosen. It makes me less afraid of dying and of death.