Sunday, April 27, 2014

Heaven Is For Real!

Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. John Paul II

(Second Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on April 27, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Divine Mercy 2014]

Heaven is for real.

That one line ties together everything I want to say in my homily this morning.

Heaven is for real.

Some of you may recognize that as the title of a movie that was released during Holy Week this year—a movie that’s doing incredibly well at the box office so far.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend that you do.

It concerns a little boy from rural Nebraska named Colton Burpo, who nearly died after his appendix ruptured back in March of 2003.  He was just about 4-years-old at the time.  Colton had a near-death experience while he was in emergency surgery, and during that near-death experience he claims to have visited heaven.  Now, to be sure, this is all in the realm of private revelation and no one has to believe any of it, but I read the book upon which the movie is based, and in all honesty I can’t find anything in it that directly contradicts Catholic Church teaching.  And that’s somewhat surprising because Colton Burpo is a Baptist and his father, Todd (who wrote the book), is a Baptist minister!

For example, at one point in the book Todd says this: “A lot of our Catholic friends have asked whether Colton saw Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The answer to that is . . . yes.  He saw Mary kneeling before the throne of God and at other times, standing beside Jesus.  ‘She still loves him like a mom,’ Colton said.”

That’s great Catholic theology concerning the Blessed Mother!  We believe as Catholics that Mary prays for us—that she intercedes for us and for our needs to Almighty God (as all the saints in heaven do); and we believe that Mary is the Queen of Heaven and earth, and that she enjoys a special place in her Son’s eternal kingdom.

Well, apparently so does Colton Burpo, based on his experience in March of 2003!

Let me add one footnote here: Not all near-death experiences, in my view, are equal.  Some can probably be explained in purely natural terms.  But even in the case of those which may have a supernatural origin, not all of them are necessarily from God.  At best these experiences are veiled images of the afterlife that are given to people by the Lord; at worst they are deceptions of the devil, who, as the Bible says, can disguise himself as an angel of light.

So a lot of discernment is needed in evaluating these matters.

All that having been said, I think there’s a lot to say in favor of the divine origin of what happened to little Colton Burpo.

As Catholics, of course, our faith in the reality of heaven does not rest on the witness of someone like Colton who had a near-death experience.  WE KNOW THAT “HEAVEN IS FOR REAL” BASED ON THE TESTIMONY—AND THE ACTUAL RESURRECTION—OF JESUS CHRIST!  As St. Peter said in our second reading today: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith.”

But even though our knowledge that heaven is for real ultimately comes from Jesus himself, the Church seeks to strengthen our faith in the existence of heaven by focusing our attention on certain men and women who, we believe, have already arrived there.

These are men and women who lived lives of heroic faith and virtue during their time on earth.  We refer to them as “canonized saints,” and this weekend (as most of us are well aware) the Church adds two new ones to the list: Pope St. John XXIII (who was the pontiff who called the Second Vatican Council), and Pope St. John Paul II (or, as many of us like to call him, Pope St. John Paul the Great!).

These two holy men now join saints like Faustina Kowalska, who was canonized back in 2000.  St. Faustina was the Polish nun who received a number of private revelations from Jesus in the 1930s concerning God’s love and mercy.  Those revelations inspired the painting of this image that we have near the pulpit today, as well as the institution of the feast we’re celebrating in the Church this weekend, the feast of Divine Mercy.

Jesus and saints like John Paul II, John XXIII and Faustina remind us that “heaven is for real,” but they also remind us of the fact that heaven is not automatic.  (Even Colton Burpo would tell you that not everyone who dies goes to heaven.)  In order to get through those “pearly gates” after we die we need to experience God’s mercy while we’re here on this earth.  That’s because we’re all sinners.   It’s providential then—and most appropriate—that in today’s gospel reading we heard how Jesus gave his apostles the power to forgive sins in his name.  Our Lord said to them on Easter Sunday, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Every canonized saint (with the exception of the Blessed Mother) needed forgiveness for whatever sins they committed in their lives.

And we are no different.  We have that same need.

May the fact that “heaven is for real” inspire us and motivate us to seek the Lord’s mercy and pardon as often as we need it—especially in the sacrament of confession.

Let me give the last word in this homily now to St. Faustina, who was once given a vision of heaven and who described it as follows:

Today I was in heaven, in spirit, and I saw its unconceivable beauties and the happiness that awaits us after death.  I saw how all creatures give ceaseless praise and glory to God.  I saw how great is happiness in God, which spreads to all creatures, making them happy; and then all the glory and praise which springs from this happiness returns to its source; and they enter into the depths of God, contemplating the inner life of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, whom they will never comprehend or fathom.  This source of happiness is unchanging in its essence, but it is always new, gushing forth happiness for all creatures.  Now I understand Saint Paul, who said, ‘Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love him.’

Let’s pray at this Mass that we will also come to understand St. Paul someday—experientially—when we, too, arrive in heaven.