Saturday, October 18, 2014

Heaven is for real and forever

Archbishop José H. Gomez
By Archbishop José H. Gomez 

God’s ways are not our ways, and his will is not always easy for us to understand.

We know that God has a plan of love for every life. But we also know that within his plan, people can find sickness and suffering that seems to have no reason, no justification.

These are some of my reflections as the sad drama of a young California woman has been unfolding this week on cable news and in the social media.

By now, many of you have heard of Brittany Maynard. She is 29 and suffering from brain cancer that cannot be treated. Doctors say it will claim her life within six months.

She and her husband moved to Oregon because it is one of five states in our nation that allow physicians to help patients commit suicide. She has announced that she plans to kill herself with an overdose of pain medication sometime in the next couple of weeks.

In her final days, Brittany is working with a national euthanasia group to advocate that the “right” and “choice” of physician-assisted suicide be granted to every American.  

Her story makes my heart heavy with sadness. And her public confession had led to an outpouring of prayers, commentary and debate.

I’ve read some beautiful testimonies and appeals from persons who are facing their own terminal illnesses with Christian faith and hope — and urging Brittany to seek beauty and meaning in her sufferings.

All of this reminds us — that we are born toward death. Our life is a journey that will come to an end some day. Every one of us knows this.

As Christians, we know that our God is a God of the living and he has shared in our sufferings. Jesus wept with human tears, and his heart was moved with compassion for the sick, the diseased and the dying. He has gone before us, entering into our pain and suffering, so that he can lead us through the valley of death into the land of the living. 

Death is real for us, but death is not the end.

But for our secular society, death still remains a closed door. The one horizon we can never see beyond.

Our science can discover the inner workings of the tiniest cells in our bodies and probe the depths of outer space. But what lies beyond this life — we will never find out for sure until it happens.

We get hints and glimpses along the way. From stories that caregivers tell about the last moments of their loved ones’ lives. From accounts of near-death experiences. From people who have been in comas for years and been awakened. 

A while back I read a book, “Heaven Is for Real” — they made it into a movie last year.

It’s the true story of a 4-year-old boy who almost died while in surgery. When the boy recovered he described how he saw Jesus and Mary in heaven and how he met family members he never knew about — a great-grandfather and an unborn sister who had died in a miscarriage.

We don’t really know what to make of all these kinds of stories.

But as Christians, we know that heaven is for real and forever. And the hope for heaven gives a new horizon to all our tomorrows here on earth. 

Our challenge as a church is to share this hope with our neighbors. It is another aspect of the new evangelization of our society, which is losing its sense of God and its sense of heaven.

The sufferings of others in our society must be a summons to us.

We need to accompany our brothers and sisters with love and compassion. Through our work to comfort them and ease their pain, we can help them to know — that God draws near to them in their sufferings.

Through our kindness and care, we can help those who suffer believe in heaven. We can show them — that when they breathe their last breath, God will be there, too. To take their hand tenderly and lead them along the last steps of their journey. Through the door, to the love that never ends.

So this week, let us pray for that young woman and for all those who are bearing heavy burdens of illness and pain.

In their time of trial and suffering, may they find tenderness and beauty in the care of their loved ones. May they know that to God their lives are precious and worth living even in their weakness and vulnerability. 

And in this month of the rosary, let us ask our Blessed Mother Mary to help all of us to live with new confidence — that in the hour of our death, all our sorrow will be turned to joy.

Archbishop José H. Gómez is the fifth archbishop of Los Angeles. His weekly column is provided by and appears in The Tidings, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Reach Archbishop Gomez at (213) 637-7000, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/archbishopgomez.

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