I think it’s about time that we address one of the most commonly-claimed lies in our Catholic faith- the idea that our loved ones become angels when they die. I’ve heard it said to family members mourning the recent death of a grandparent, parent, or friend. I’ve heard it suggested by well-meaning teens who are trying to explain to their peers what they believe about death. I’ve even heard it taught by catechists who believe that it is an absolute truth of the Catholic faith. People do not bat an eye when they hear such a suggestion; they do not consider the implications. Because the consequence of such a belief is this: if we become angels when we die, we cease to be human. There is no such thing as a human-angelic hybrid (unless you’re watching a sci-fi movie). We cease to be the creature that God made us to be. We cease to share in common with Christ the nature that He received from his mother Mary at his conception. And that’s simply not true.
We do not need to become angels when we die. Our reward for a life well-lived is not a pair of wings; it’s a spot in heaven. It is eternal life, a life spent with God in heaven. Is that not good enough? Is that not human perfection? Do we have to become angels when we die? Is that somehow better than our humanity? When God created mankind, He created us knowing that one day His Only Begotten Son would become human Himself. If it was good enough for God, shouldn’t it be good enough for us?
But it seems that being a soul after death isn’t enough for most. And if we’re going to be perfectly honest, it shouldn’t be. We will be incomplete until we get our bodies back at the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world (New concept to you? Check out my earlier post on this Catholic doctrine.). It’s our bodies that will complete us though, not a pair of angel’s wings (not that angels have wings). We were never mean to be angels. We were meant to be human.
Suggesting that our loved ones do not become angels upon death has been known to offend people, some of whom are incredibly devout and knowledgeable regarding the faith. I strip someone’s beloved departed grandmother of her supposed “wings,” and suddenly it’s like I’ve suggested that the woman is in purgatory…or hell. As if you can’t be in heaven unless you’re an angel. Honestly, I don’t think that’s really it. I don’t think most people believe that only angels can reside in heaven. I think once the initial fury of my suggestion fades, most people will admit that human souls go to heaven too. I think the real issue concerns what we believe souls in heaven can do.
The image most people paint about death is quite clear. When our loved ones die, they go to heaven where they become angels, thereby granting them the ability to watch over those they have left behind on earth. That’s what everyone longs to believe, what everyone thinks only the “angel theory” can give us. We want a direct line to God, or at least someone else who is more capable of watching over us than we are ourselves. If our beloved grandmother is an angel in heaven, she will guard us, protect us, hear our prayers. Because that’s what angels do, right?
I think the reason that many people cling to the notion that our loved ones become angels upon death is because they believe that’s the only way that they can watch over us, that they can continue to impact our lives. They believe that this is an ability unique to angels. And saints. But we’ll get back to that, because this is the answer to our problem. Angels are often given the task of protecting us, hence guardian angels. We want our loved ones in heaven to be capable of that as well, so we assume that they must become angels when they die. But that’s not the only way for our deceased loved ones to watch over us.
Our loved ones do not need to be angels to watch over us. They need to be saints. And how do they do that? Do we need to wait five years, then submit to the agonizingly long process of canonization before we can begin praying to our loved ones? Do they have to be of “big-S” saint caliber before we can pray to them? What if they have not lived a life of heroic virtue? What if they lived a holy, but rather mundane life, before passing away at the ripe old age of 96? If they can’t become a Saint in the Church, how else can we pray to them? How else can they watch over us, pray for us? They have to become angels, right?
Wrong. Our loved ones do not need to become angels to watch over us. They need to be saints. And if they’re in heaven, as we believe, then they’ve already achieved that goal. They are already saints. If you’re in heaven, you’re a saint. It’s as simple as that. You do not need to have lived a life of heroic virtue before dying a martyr to be a saint. You do not need to be recognized as a named saint, having passed through the multi-step process of canonization beforehand. You can be a saint, without being a Saint, if you know what I mean.
And saints have the same abilities in heaven as Saints. If we can pray to St. Therese or St. John, we can pray to our grandmother, our beloved priest, our friend. If they are in heaven, we can pray to them, and they can pray for us. If they are in heaven, they are perfectly capable of watching over us, hearing our prayers. They do not need to be angels. They do not need to be canonized saints. Besides, how do you think people get canonized anyway?
If you’re unfamiliar with the process, here’s a quick synopsis. Typically, you wait five years and then demonstrate that a person lived a life of heroic virtue that would have permitted them entrance into heaven upon death. Petitions are written, interviews are held, and everything the person has ever written is reviewed. A report of the findings is written, and if that report is found favorable, the person receives the title of “servant of God.” Once a person is deemed thus, the report is brought to the attention of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome. If the person passes this phase, they receive the title of “Venerable.” From there, proof of a single miracle establishes the next title: “Blessed,” and a second miracle concludes the process. The person is canonized, and is given the title “Saint.” But how do you think a person gets to that stage?
The answer is simple: intercession. They hear prayers. They answer prayers, sometimes in miraculous ways. But that all starts with one action: members of the Church here on earth begin to pray to them. If we couldn’t pray to our loved ones until they were canonized, we wouldn’t have many canonized saints. There would be no miracles. There would be no intercession. The process of canonization begins with a person’s actions on earth, but it also concerns their continued actions from heaven. Intercessory prayer, and the miracles that are occasionally associated with such a thing, are proof that our loved ones can hear our prayers from heaven. They can hear our prayers and respond to them. They can watch over us. They can do all that, and they do not need to be angels or canonized saints.
I have often been told to err on the side of caution, meaning we should pray that our loved ones’ time in purgatory comes to an end, rather than assuming they are in heaven. Our prayers have the power to shorten a person’s time in purgatory, but we must pray for them. If we assume they are in heaven, when they are not, we do not help them. In my twenty-nine years on earth, I have known a handful of people who I believe are in heaven without a doubt, who I believe did little to no time in purgatory. I believe those people are in heaven, and in times of need, I pray to them. In times of calm, I talk to them. I believe that they are watching over me, that they can hear me. They do not need to be angels. They are as human as they were the last time I saw them here on earth. They are just closer to God now. They are in heaven now. They are saints now. They do not need to be angels; they are already saints.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!