When a person dies, or the anniversary of their death is commemorated in the newspaper and social media, it is commonplace to hear or see various phrases "rest in peace...happy anniversary in heaven...watch over us..." and so forth. The assumption is made that the decedent is in heaven and while we miss them, he or she is now in a better place.
Contrary to popular belief, heaven is not an automatic destination for the departed nor does our Catholicism alone provide a ticket for immediate entry. Instead, the one mandate that holds true for each one of us is whether we have confessed Jesus as Lord and live our lives according to His purpose.
Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above." He went on to say in verses 16 and 17 "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through Him."
Despite God's directive, I've heard individuals say "Well, I don't believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven...I'm a good person...there were other prophets in addition to Jesus and they also spoke the truth...God is too loving to condemn me to hell...hell doesn't even exist...well, i'll get it right with God when I'm old."
I read a story a number of years ago where a group of teenagers walked into a church during an evening service. An altar call was given and when one of the young men stepped forward to give his life to Christ, his friend loudly whispered "Sissy!" The young man returned to his seat and as the minister approached him, he said "You keep praying for me and I'll think about it." At that point, he and the other teens began to laugh as they exited the church. Not long afterwards, a car attempted to go over the railroad crossing and was destroyed by an oncoming train. Each occupant of the car was killed all of whom were the young boys that had left the church minutes earlier.
A few weeks ago, my husband went to a wake for a family member. He knew that the decedent had lived apart from God and it troubled him to hear the minister laughingly announce that she and all creation would be welcomed into heaven by a loving God...no matter what. My husband remarked to me "Unless she accepted the Lord as Savior before she died, the prayers and accolades are for naught."
As Catholics, we need to realize that adherence to our traditions without a personal relationship with Christ means nothing. The Lord created each one of us to enjoy eternal life and fellowship with Him. However, the choice to accept His gift rests completely on us.