In an episode of the comedy series Father Ted the two central characters, Father Ted Crilly and his hapless curate Fr Dougal McGuire, have the following conversation as they are lying in bed:
Dougal: Do you believe in an after-life?
Ted: Do I what?
Dougal: Do you believe in an after-life?
Ted: Well Dougal, generally speaking priests tend to have a very strong belief in the after-life.
Dougal: Boy, I wish I had your faith Ted.
Ted: Dougal, how did you get into the Church? Was it like collect twelve crisp packets and become a priest?
In many ways our annual Easter celebration poses the very same question: Do you believe in an after-life? As faithful Catholics our answer should be: Absolutely! But are we saying that because we are expected to say it or because we really believe it in our own hearts? Are we secretly more like Father Dougal McGuire than we care to admit, looking at those around us who appear to have unshakeable faith and wishing we could be the same? Yet the irony is that those same people are probably looking back at us with the same kind of thoughts! Such is the nature of the Church!
One person who understood the central importance of belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come was the Apostle St Paul. In his First Letter to the Church at Corinth he wrote these challenging words:
If Christ raised from the dead is what has been preached, how can some of you be saying that there is no resurrection of the dead? For if the dead are not raised, Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, you are still in your sins. And what is more serious, all who have died in Christ have perished. If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are the most unfortunate of all people. But Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of all who fallen asleep. (15:12. 16-20).
Clearly people in their hundreds and eventually in their thousands were sufficiently moved by the conviction of Paul in what he wrote and preached to seek Baptism and become Christians, often risking their own lives to do so. Had that not happened the Church as we know it today would almost certainly not exist. So the question: Do you believe in an after-life? is not one that we can ignore or simply pretend to answer with conviction when the truth is quite the opposite. To be able to say Yes is of central importance to what we claim to believe. In fact it is much more than that. It is the essential ingredient of what it means to be a Catholic.
In a poem entitled Aldershot Crematorium John Betjeman describes with painful accuracy the kind of scene we often encounter today at a British funeral.
And no-one seems to know quite what to say.
Friends are so altered by the passing years.
‘Well anyhow it’s not so cold today.’
And thus we try to dissipate our fears.
‘I am the resurrection and the life.’
Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife.
In sharp contrast to the scepticism and blatant unbelief which so often surrounds us in today’s world we are meant to be an Easter people with Alleluia as our song! Yet is that what we really are? Easter challenges us each year to take a bold step and put our feet in one of two camps. Either the camp of those who believe that our earthly existence is all that there is and will one day end with death or the camp of those who truly believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting and who see death as the doorway to a new beginning. Personally I know that I could not be a Catholic priest (or even a Catholic layperson) if I did not believe in an after-life even if there are inevitable times when my faith in it is tried and tested. I sincerely hope and pray that the same is the case for all of you. May this be a time of grace for you when your faith is strengthened by the Easter mysteries proclaiming as they do that Jesus Christ has triumphed once for all over sin and death and opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. May I wish you all a very happy and holy Easter.
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!