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“Remember,” declared the Catholic bishop of Wheeling-Charleston (i.e., all of West Virginia), ”that Senator Byrd is now at peace with the Risen Lord and, with his late wife Erma Ora Byrd, is experiencing Perfect Joy.” The friend who sent this commented:

What WONDERFUL news. I am planning on writing to the good bishop to ask for some relics of the newly canonized Byrdus Maximus. I will use them to ask the Senator’s intercession that an Olympic swimming pool may be Federally funded and installed in our school yard . . . . Who needs Dante when we have my most gracious Lord of Wheeling-Charleston?? Indeed, even the Pope is rendered superfluous . . .

It would have been nice if the bishop remembered that we don’t know where anyone winds up, the judgment being God’s alone and He making it on inside information. Even of those of whose faith we feel sure, we have no warrant for believing they entered immediately into Heaven rather than Purgatory (see numbers 1021 and 1022 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church ). That is why the process of canonization requires two authenticated miracles even after the Church’s committee has made, after an exhaustive examination, its judgment that the person lived an exceptionally holy life.

Even the Code of Canon Law does not make a judgment about the eternal state of the soul to which the Church denies a funeral (see canon 1184 ). It is possible that the “notorious apostate” (one of the groups excluded) repented, impending death concentrating the mind wonderfully, but so late or so privately that we have no record. He may not receive a funeral in church, but we may still hope that he avoided choosing to go to Hell, despite the evidence. The same applies in reverse for those we’d like to think in Heaven.

The worst effect of this kind of thoughtlessness, alas all too common among Christians of all sorts, is that it seduces us into sloth. It is the kind of talk that sends one strolling happily down the broad way that leads to destruction, against which Jesus warned us (Matthew 7:13). As the Cathecism ( number 1136 ) puts it:

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion : “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth. [The quote is from Lumen Gentium , section 48.]

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