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 | By Sister Pamela Smith

The Last Things First

Death, judgment, heaven, hell: for centuries the Christian tradition has referred to these as the Four Last Things. In the 16th century, an unfinished reflection on these topics by St. Thomas More was discovered after his martyrdom. Sculptures and paintings on the theme date back to the year 1500 if not earlier.

And St. Philip Neri, sometimes known as the laughing saint, recommended repeated meditation on these topics in his maxims. It seems that the saint could move with ease from somber to light-hearted in his practical life.

But why dwell on these end-time topics in a season full of Alleluias and a month, in this diocese at least, which includes a Eucharistic Congress? Certainly one reason is that the Paschal Mystery — and indeed the entirety of the incarnation, earthly ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus — casts the four last things in a new and hope-filled light. Another reason is a point we often forget: every eucharistic celebration has dimensions that are at once earthly and eschatological (a word meaning “relating to death, judgment and the final destiny of the soul”).

The Eucharist, as source and summit of our faith, is where we realize the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine, in the Word proclaimed and preached, in the priest who celebrates in persona Christi and in the faithful assembled. The assembly includes not only Ms. Peg with her summery tan, old Mr. Joe bowing his balding head, Lori and Rich with their indifferent teens, Felipe and Magdalena with their small children and an abuela in tow — it also includes angels and saints. Our Catholic teaching about the Mass is that it partakes of the heavenly banquet, the liturgy of heaven. Sometimes that is a reality about which the faithful are recurrently amnesiac.

Christians see a continuum between this world and the next. Christ asked St. Paul when he was still Saul why he was persecuting him. Saul was persecuting living, breathing Christians — the Body of Christ in the newborn Church. And Christ reminded us in Matthew 25 that our treatment of and regard for the “least of these brothers” and sisters is the measure of our regard for him — because he is so identified with persons here on this planet. The Letter to the Hebrews attests to our being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1), referring to those who have died in faith and continue to care about us and pray for us from the heavenly realm. A believer in Christ believes that earth and the kingdom of heaven are tightly interwoven.

The poet Wallace Stevens once composed five stanzas entitled “How to Live. What to Do.” It paints a rather mystifying picture of a man and an unidentified companion stopping at the base of a rocky mountain peak. There isn’t much of anything going on except moonglow and the sound of wind. From our frame of reference, it might be read as a reminder to stop and take in the splendor of creation, to live with a reverence for life and for the whole world of nature even at its simplest and starkest. It’s a good companion piece to Robert Frost’s famous “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Both of the poems, like many pieces of music, works of art and our sacred liturgy, show that there is great depth to be found in our contemplative moments.

If we want details about how to live and what to do, we Catholics can read the whole of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, particularly Part III, which is entitled “Life in Christ.” We can also simplify and summarize it in terms of the Two Great Commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. We are engaged in a contest of love. We are charged with putting God and the things of God first and love of neighbor — including even the one we might deem a natural enemy — right there with that divine love.

We also increasingly realize that love of neighbor entails obligations to the world we leave behind when it comes our time to die, be judged and to encounter our eternal destiny. In Laudate Deum, Pope Francis observed, “The world sings of an infinite Love: how can we fail to care for it? God has united us to all his creatures” (65-66). If we take to heart our Eucharist and the injunctions on how to live a life in Christ, we will support and advocate for human life and human dignity “from womb to tomb” and use the things of this world with gratitude and care — and concern for those who come after us.

Just before this year’s Lenten season began, Time magazine put out a special edition entitled “Heaven and the Afterlife: What Awaits Us?” The varied articles and artworks depict human hopes and fears and in some cases the aspirations to outwit death. Because human beings are free and given free will, we know that it is possible to disdain God, to despise our neighbor and to trample on God’s good earth — or just to be smart and prideful enough to make ourselves our own little gods.

Those who read The Catholic Miscellany, we trust, may need some purification after death but ought not to be expected to be hell-bound. We who live in Christ, we who receive Christ and are being transformed into his likeness, are confident that we know what awaits us: the glorified body of which St. Paul spoke and the “new heavens, new earth” referenced in Isaiah, 2 Peter and the Book of Revelation. We can look forward to these, provided that we put the last things first. We do so by worshiping faithfully and by acting justly and lovingly — that is, by living heavenly lives in the here and now.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is the diocesan director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at