Pope Benedict, when he was just plain Joseph Ratzinger, wrote a very interesting book entitled Eschatology. There were many outstanding subjects in this book, so it is difficult to pick one. Nevertheless, I believe that the thing that affected me most was his theology of death. Death is not something one thinks about in any detail, and if one does, it is done with foreboding. Our faith gives us tremendous hope that God will keep His promises, and that we will be in heaven with Him forever, if we cooperate with His grace. But usually people, this author included, see death as an unwanted, tragic thing. We assume that, since we have been living, we will continue to do so, knowing in the mind that God can call us at any moment, but not in the heart. Death is thus seen as something to be avoided as much as possible.
The father of this author, who was a good Catholic, was hit by a hit-and-run driver when he was crossing the street. This accident was such a shock to his immune system that he developed a variety of “diseases of opportunity,” the worst of which was lung cancer. He was dying of it, and he said to me, “Why me?” I was too young and had not penetrated into these mysteries much up to this time (1976), so that I could not give him an answer. But Pope Benedict’s book has changed that for me. The human being is called to give of himself up to the limits of his nature. In this, he mirrors the Holy Trinity, the persons of which are known by their relationship with each other. That relationship is complete self-surrendering love. God is not limited by His nature, so He can be infinitely giving. We have to take care of ourselves, so, unless there are unusual circumstances, we have limits to the giving to others. Death, it seemed before reading this book, was a question of not giving; of going kicking and screaming into eternity. But the Holy Father explained death as a final act of giving oneself completely to God. It is a question of saying “yes” to God, no matter what, allowing Him to have His will with you in the last moment of your life. This quite correctly links the self-giving one is supposed to do to be like Christ during life, to a final act of submission, embracing God in death. Looked at in this way, death is a welcome thing, not because life is hard, as in the mind of the suicide, but because it gives you God. St. Catherine of Genoa, in her reflections on Purgatory, where she was allowed to personally experience those sufferings, tells us that the suffering she underwent there was horrible; nevertheless, the souls in purgatory have the vision of God, which grows even clearer as one’s sins are expiated, and one was willing to suffer anything to hold on to that vision, so wonderful was it.
On the other side, the most perplexing aspect of the book is where Benedict links the connection with others in our own death. Having been raised in the “old days,” with its more individualistic notion of salvation, those of similar background as this author see salvation as “me and God.” Yes, we believe in the mystical body, but that concept has not been thoroughly unwrapped. A friend and fellow professor in New York mentioned this to me over twenty-five years ago. I saw what he meant, but, not being a theologian at the time, I could not take but little steps on my own account to try to see how the Mystical Body relates to the “me and God” scenario. But Pope Benedict introduces this to us in his book. He asks, how can we say that we have reached our fulfillment and destiny after death, when there are still people alive on earth whom we have caused suffering, or who cooperated in the evil deeds we did and still bear the guilt of those sins? Here the Pope refers to the Hindu idea of Karma, which is, in a way, a Catholic concept, yet made more crude by the Hindus. The story is told of Bodhisattva, who refuses to enter heaven while there are still suffering people on earth. He says that Christ is the real Bodhisattva, because a heaven of bliss above an earth that is hell is not heaven at all. This explains the coming of the Second Person as true man, to rescue, not just individuals, but the whole of creation. It also explains Purgatory as the place where one suffers to the end of everything one has left in his wake on earth.
For this author, this is a very difficult concept to embrace, probably because it is new to him, but also because it surpasses so many other teachings which strain our puny brain’s ability to comprehend. Those we made to suffer, we are now suffering for to make up for what we have done. Those whom we got to cooperate in our evil schemes were acting with free will nonetheless, yet we are also suffering for them to rectify the fact that we were the catalyst or instigator of their actions. It was by our suggestion, or failure to resist, that they were drawn into the evil scheme. Take adultery, for example. If a man seduces a woman, it means that he is the one whose suggestion she took. And even if it was ultimately her free will, he was the one to present the alluring temptation to her. The hardest part of this is that, suppose that the man repents of the adultery, but she does not. This makes the evil that was done greater, and she may lose her soul because of him. This needs to be suffered for. This is why our ultimate fulfillment is put off; we have to clean up our mess, so to speak.