32nd Sunday in OT (C)
November 8, 2019
Many happy memories at St Mary’s
November 8, 2019

The Catholic Church and near-death experiences

There’s a reason people return to life after death. Copy editor Simone Delochan concludes her examination of near-death experiences with a look at the Catholic perspective. Part One appeared in the November 3 issue.

Not all the persons who have had near-death experiences (NDEs) recount warm tales of light and love.  Some have plumbed hellish scenes.

One patient, in one of the studies mentioned last week, recounts: “When I reached the bottom, it resembled the entrance to a cave, with what looked like webs hanging. . . .I heard cries, wails, moans, and the gnashing of teeth. I saw these beings that resembled humans, with the shape of a head and body, but they were ugly and grotesque. . .. They were frightening and sounded like they were tormented, in agony.”

A priest in 1985, had his own NDE. He remembers being before the throne and being condemned to Hell. It was only at the pleading of a female voice, whom he knows to be Mary, that the judgement was suspended, and he was sent back to change his life.

In his interior locution Fr Scheier heard Jesus say he was not happy with the state of his life as a priest and his mother Mary promised to intercede for him so that his life would be more pleasing to her Son.

On why he was allowed to live, Fr Scheier responds: “My mission is to let you know that Hell exists and we as priests are liable to it.” He was left with the deep knowledge that His Divine Mercy is unfathomable; His mercy outweighs justice.

A simple Google search reveals many stories of former atheists, practising Catholics, Anglicans, agnostics and others who have had NDEs and experienced complete conversion in their lives, with a depth of belief in God (or a God), Heaven and Hell, and a firmer conviction of God’s overwhelming love and mercy.

It is important to note at this point, not every brush with death is a near-death experience. An NDE is specifically marked with verifiable information according to the scientific studies.

Fr Robert Spitzer SJ—Jesuit priest, philosopher, educator, author, speaker—offers caution at taking stories at face value, as claims of NDE can be used to manipulative ends. He instead invites people to look at the scientific studies which have been done as well as the source of the stories and how they are being used.

Transphysical consciousness

The Catholic Church has no official position on near-death experiences. Fr Gerald O’ Collins, former professor of systematic theology at the prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, in an interview with Catholic site The Register said, “I cautiously treat these experiences as a good thing but not as a major argument for life after death and our belief in the Resurrection.”

Still, there have been a few individual discussions/examinations over the years by priests and religious on 1. The impact on the individual i.e. as private revelations; and 2. The plausibility that NDEs lend in support of biblical and doctrinal teachings.

The main offering of NDEs, according to discussions in Catholic fora, is evidence of life after death and transphysical consciousness after clinical death. The out-of-body experiences follow the pattern of a transphysical component which departs the physical body and sees that physical body.

The component maintains awareness, retains memory, retains the senses of hearing and seeing and is not constrained by physical barriers such as closed doors and windows, or walls.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that after death, body and soul are separated: “… and also that it [the soul] is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.”

The science and doctrine merge insofar as indicating the existence of a non-corporeal part of the human being, which is independent of the physical body.

Many have also described the overwhelming feeling of unconditional love, happiness and peace which coincides with Christian revelation about the Kingdom of Heaven.

St Faustina Kowalska, (1905-1938) in her diary wrote about her vision of Heaven: “Today I was in heaven, in spirit, and I saw its unconceivable beauties and the happiness that awaits us after death….This source of happiness is unchanging in its essence, but it is always new, gushing forth happiness for all creatures.”

St Seraphim of Sarov, Russia’s greatest mystic of the 19th century, found it impossible to convey heaven’s beauty. “If the Apostle Paul himself was unable to describe heavenly glory and joy, what other tongue could describe the beauty of the heavenly abode which the souls of the just inhabit? I cannot tell you of the heavenly joy and sweetness I experienced there.”

Perhaps though the greatest message inherent in the NDE is for the individual who has experienced it. It can be difficult, in the retelling, to convey the depth of what he or she has gone through, except in the change of life lived post-event, and the certain knowledge that God, in His immense mercy and love, has given another chance to be a beacon for those with whom the survivor has come into contact.