The church I knew best as a teenager was Sacred Heart basilica in Timaru. I was often at Mass there, when at school with the Marist Brothers, or in my teen years at St. Pat’s. At times (especially when I was nearing exams and feeling a bit helpless and hopeless) I would go in to pray.
I had a favourite pew – towards the back where I could sit and take in the full beauty of the church. Often I felt as though I was not praying at all, just looking, wondering, planning, hoping, and savouring the beauty.
Then there were other times when I was daydreaming in a maths or history class in the upstairs classrooms at St. Pat’s. To pass the time in a dull class I would sketch the church across the playground. The shapes fascinated me, and through my doodlings I grew to know the architectural detail well.
From across town as I was biking my daily chemist delivery round I would see the distant dome and bell towers of Sacred Heart. Entering Timaru from any direction the tarnished copper domes were distinctive. I suppose the church was something of a ‘touchstone’ for me. When I saw the church, I remembered God. I thought of Heaven.
I was reminded of those teenage moments during this week. Some time ago a friend who also has Timaru connections lent me the book published to mark the centenary of the opening of Sacred Heart basilica. The book is appropriately called “Thinking of Heaven.”
Sean Brosnahan (who wrote this parish history), sat alongside me in sixth form English. He begins his preface:
“When I drive up over the final hill towards Timaru from the south, I am looking for just one thing. When I see the dome of the Basilica – it suddenly pops into view as you crest the summit just past Kingsdown – I know I am nearly home”.
Sean continues reflecting on the inside of the church from his earlier perspective as a child:
“The ornate marble altar absolutely intrigued me. I wondered if there wasn’t some secret doorway set into its columns and decorative panels that would open directly into heaven. I can recall looking up at the limestone pediment that stretches right around the church, just above the Ionic columns, and thinking how cool it would be to crawl along it, checking there fore the same secret entranceway to paradise”.
“The Basilica seemed like something ancient and timeless, a little piece of eternity that had taken root amongst us…”
The “Thinking About Heaven” book sits on my table ready to return to the lender this week. These first days of November have also got me thinking about heaven. On Thursday we celebrated the feast of All Saints. On Friday we marked the feast of All Souls. In this month of November we pray in a special way for those who have died. Whenever I remember those dead who have loved me in life on earth, I soon find myself thinking about heaven.
My parents died just two and three years ago. It was they who first took me into Sacred Heart church (where they themselves had been to Mass the first morning of their honeymoon.
While many funeral services today try to focus on celebrating the life of the one who has died, and on ‘saying goodbye,’ a Catholic funeral has a very different and very specific purpose. A Catholic funeral Mass or service is primarily about commending the one we love to God.
The Church reminds us that we cannot adequately bury a loved one in a service of a couple of hours followed by lunch. Instead it is important to spend two or three days gathering, sharing stories, laughing and crying, comforting remembering, over food and drink. Only when this process has happened are the family and friends ready to proceed to the final stage of the funeral rites, and to commend the one they love to God with the formal rites of Christian burial.
The stories and memories are an essential part of the process and cannot be restricted only to those who are confident enough to stand before a crowd in a formal environment. But after the stories we realise that we are in need of a further stage. Memories are not enough to carry us into the future. This next stage focusses not on the one who has died, but on God. The early hours of grief, when lived fully with family and friends, lead us to the healthiest of human occupations: now we are ‘thinking of heaven.’
When we farewell the loved one we are not abandoning them into the unknown. In the Catholic funeral we commend the one who has died to the love and mercy of God.
We do not help the deceased if we presume that they are already fully with God. God does not force salvation on anyone. Instead the one we have loved in life on earth is invited to receive the fulness of life that God has prepared for each of us.
So let us remember and pray for those who have died, knowing that our prayer enables them to receive the fulness of life for eternity.
Eternal rest grant to them O Lord
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace