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Question Corner

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Are deceased aware of those on earth?

Q. As a longtime practicing Catholic, I would like to know whether the church has a position on whether those who are now in heaven can observe, and are aware of, how we are living our lives here on earth. Also, can we pray to our deceased loved ones for help and guidance in the same way that we pray to the saints? (San Francisco)

A. As to your first question, the belief of the church is that the saints in heaven are, in fact, aware of us and of how we are living. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have prayed to the saints and asked them to petition the Lord on our behalf.

In the Book of Revelation (5:8), traditionally attributed to the apostle John, those in heaven are portrayed as interceding for us before the throne of God, holding bowls filled with incense and offering our own prayers to the Father. If they are aware of our prayers, they clearly must know what we are about.

Your second question is a bit more complicated. As for praying to deceased loved ones, we may not be certain whether they have yet merited heaven. If they are still in purgatory, we can surely pray for them — but can they pray for us? And here, theologians have differed.

St. Thomas Aquinas believed that the souls in purgatory were not yet in a position to intervene on our behalf. St. Robert Bellarmine, on the other hand, felt that these souls were already secure in their eventual salvation and therefore were in a favorable position to beg divine help for those of us still in earth.

If the deceased loved ones to whom we pray are already in heaven, then of course they can bring our prayers to the Lord.

So, to your question, I think that it does make sense to hope that they are already with God and to pray to them for help and guidance. I myself do this frequently — visit the graves of my parents and my sister and ask them to help me to live the way they taught me and to be a good priest.

Are relics 'macabre'?

Q. I am a Catholic convert and support all the dogmas of the church. But there is one practice that I must admit gives me pause — the use of relics, preserving the body parts of deceased saints. I could see honoring robes or rings, but teeth or fingers seems a bit too much, bordering on the macabre. We never covered this in our RCIA program, and I’m hoping that you can explain. (New Middletown, Ind.)

A. The veneration of the relics of saintly individuals has a long history — dating back to pre-Christian times. The bones of the Old Testament prophet Elisha once brought a dead man to life (2 Kgs 13:20-21).

Then, when St. Polycarp was martyred in the middle of the second century, a contemporary account stated: "We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom."

In venerating relics, the church is not ascribing to them any magical powers, although they may sometimes serve as occasions of God’s miracles. More often, they simply dispose those who view them to strive to live the virtues of that particular saint.

Perhaps St. Jerome, who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, gave the clearest explanation of relics when he wrote in "Ad Riparium": "We do not worship (relics), we do not adore (them), for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator. But we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order to better adore him whose martyrs they are."

Forgetting eucharistic fast

Q. Recently I graduated from high school, and I have a question about the eucharistic fast. This morning I went to the 7:30 Mass and had a cup of coffee with a protein shake in it before I left for church. The church was only a few minutes away, and I received Communion at the Mass, not thinking anything about the fast.

Is this a mortal sin? It was a complete mistake, but I feel so horrible for accidentally disrespecting the Eucharist, and I would greatly appreciate your guidance. (City and state withheld)

A. Of course it's not a mortal sin — or any sin at all. It was simply — as you said — a mistake, done without any thought at all. Sin requires a deliberate intention to do something wrong. And here is my question for you: What do you think God is really like?

For me, God is not some giant scorekeeper in the sky whose primary interest it is to keep track of rights and wrongs. God is the person who brought you into existence out of love, wants you to be happy here on earth and to be with him forever in heaven. So try to relax and know how much God loves you.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021