What happens to us when we die? I remember thinking in the last parish that it was amazing the number of people I had known who had died over the four years I was there and that was just in one parish alone. Where are they now? Are they anywhere? We usually say they are in heaven and hopefully that is true. That is what God has created us for. I know that today most people are probably very sceptical about the idea of hell. That seems to be a medieval idea that is dead and gone. However, the reality is that if heaven is real and if we have free will, which we do, then it must also be possible to lose what God wants us to reach. God has created us for life with him, which we call heaven. I guess you could say it is the greatest happiness we could imagine, something wonderful beyond our wildest dreams. Every so often God allows a saint or mystic to experience something of what awaits us, no doubt to reassure us that it is real. Think of someone like Padre Pio (St. Pius of Pietrelcina), or indeed different places where Our Lady has appeared.
If being with God means light, happiness, joy, love, no suffering, no injustice and being with the people we love, then the opposite of that is darkness, isolation, pain, loneliness, etc. Since we have free will it means that we can lose what God wants us to reach. I think it’s important not to forget that. God offers us something wonderful but we have the freedom to accept or reject it.
The next thing that comes to most people’s minds is the fear of not being good enough, or perhaps the fear of what we have done wrong. I remember a priest friend of mine who died a few years ago. When he was dying he kept saying ‘I’ll never get into heaven. I’m not good enough.’ I was sorry for him and he was a holy man, but it seems to be a natural fear that many of us have. I’ve heard so many people express this fear.
Then we come to the parable of the prodigal son which we have today. I think it is one of the most wonderful stories in the Bible for several reasons. What it says more than anything is that God does not act the way we do. In spite of the way we can behave the Father in heaven has compassion for us in a way that we do not understand because we never experience that kind of compassion from other human beings. What it says more than anything is that God doesn’t care how badly we mess things up or whether we are the model child. The only thing God is interested in is that we reach the happiness that He has created us for. And God will do everything possible—apart from forcing us—to make sure we reach this happiness which we call heaven. However, because God completely respects the freedom He has given us He will never force us. The death and resurrection of Jesus is all about making sure that our sins can be forgiven and that we can reach this happiness that God wants for us. That’s also what the mass is.
In this story of the Prodigal son, the younger son was a disaster, but it says that ‘while he was still a long way off, the father saw him and was moved with pity.’ The older son appeared to be the loyal child who ‘turned out fine.’ Yet he was seething with resentment, but the father also showed him compassion.
God is not interested in how good or bad, successful or unsuccessful we are, rather that we will keep coming back to him. If we remain open to him, we have nothing to worry about. Think of the younger son, the one who basically said he wanted nothing more to do with his father or his family and took off. I’m sure there are many of you worrying about children who have said they want nothing more to do with the Church or religion. Well remember this parable. The Lord still loves them just as much as any of us and God will go on reaching out to them until the end of their lives, perhaps through ways that we never see or even think of. But that is where we also have a duty to pray for them. That’s what the first reading is about. Moses intercedes for the people and God has mercy on them.
To sum up: God has created us to experience the fullness of life and to reach a happiness that is more than our wildest dreams could imagine. God will do everything possible apart from forcing us, to make sure we and our loved ones get there. So let us have great confidence in this and never be afraid of our mistakes or of how our lives have turned out. All that matters is that we try and stay open to God. The rest is in God’s mercy.
‘While he was still a long way off, the Father saw him and took pity on him.’