- Father Matthew Gworek
My mother passed away earlier this year. Since her passing, I haven’t returned to church. My mother was baptized Catholic and made her first Communion, but wasn’t a practicing Catholic after that. I’m confused as to where her soul is now. Can she be at peace?
This situation is difficult. Unfortunately, it’s also a situation that is increasingly common in our Church. As more people choose to stop coming to Mass, we’re left questioning what will happen to them in life and in death.
I’ll begin by saying that, in most cases, we can’t be completely certain about those who have died. This might seem discouraging, but the truth is that it’s not our job to know or to make that decision. It’s God’s. So God is the only one who knows until we join him ourselves.
I think, though, that this truth actually makes our lack of certainty a cause not for discouragement, but for hope — and that is because our God is a God of hope, a God of love, a God of mercy and a God of acceptance. That means that we can hope that God wants his children, even those who have fallen away, in heaven with him.
That is, in fact, what we Catholics believe. Yes, we certainly teach that being part of the Church, receiving the sacraments and going to Mass are the normal ways in which we point ourselves toward God and heaven. And yes, we definitely regard our tradition and teachings as a strong foundation on which people can live out God’s commandments and spread the Gospel. We also believe, however, that knowing how imperfect we people are, God reaches out to people both inside and outside of the Church.
When people fall away from the Church, we do our best to hold onto hope that they’ll eventually return to the Church, or that God will make himself known to them in some other way.
God loves the faith that we have, even when it’s partial and even though it’s not perfect. God never stops loving us and never turns his back on anyone. We know, therefore, that whenever we’re able to turn back toward him, he will be there, waiting, for each of us.
Remember, as Jesus hung on the cross and proclaimed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), and, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43), he chose to fill his final moments providing mercy and a path to eternal happiness to those who had been far less than perfect in their lives. If Jesus offered that mercy and hope to imperfect men and women on that day, we believe that the same mercy and hope will be offered to us.
Our Church has hope for mothers who have stopped practicing their faith, for children who haven’t been to Mass in years, and for every person God has created. We have hope that — somehow, some way — our God who loves us all more than we could ever imagine will break through and turn hearts back to him. We hope that all those who have died might find their way back, in life or in death, and join in the salvation and resurrection our Lord offers.
I pray that these words might bring you some peace about your mother. I pray, as well, that you might find the courage to return to church even in this moment of struggle. The love, support and community of the body of Christ in our churches can be such a critical source of strength in our times of need. Finally, I pray that all those in similar situations might have the faith to stay hopeful even in such difficult moments of their lives.
Father Matthew Gworek is parochial vicar at St. Mary Church in Branford. He is the creator of Catholic Chat with Father Matt, a YouTube video series in which he answers questions about the Church, God and why any odf this should even matter to us all.