My cousin Denis, a former seminarian, believed in God but not in life beyond. He thought that God created the universe and then abandoned it to itself and that God did not punish or reward or grant eternal life.
Actually, there are strong historic pointers to life beyond for those ready to open their minds. The concrete proofs underscore the truth of Catholicism with all its teaching, including that on life after death. They also point to God’s concern for people.
“Little Boy” Dropped on Hiroshima
At 8:15 a.m., Aug. 6, 1945, an American bomber dropped the atomic bomb “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan. An estimated eighty thousand people were killed instantly. But eight German Jesuit priests survived.
Father Hubert Schiffer, S.J., one of the surviving priests, explains what happened to him:
After celebrating the Eucharist, he had gone to the Urakami Cathedral rectory (eight city blocks away from ground zero) to have breakfast. He had just placed his spoon into a grapefruit when an explosion occurred which he thought was coming from the local harbor where submarines were refueled. It was a terrific explosion with an extremely bright flash of light. The air was filled with what appeared to be a bursting thunder stroke.
An invisible force lifted the priest from his chair, “hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me, whirled me round and round like a leaf in a gust of autumn wind.” His eyes were shut through this. When he opened them, he saw himself lying on the ground. He was there but that was about it. Almost all the buildings were leveled. Even the railroad station was gone, flattened out. There was nothing except the wooden framework of the rectory which remained intact. Despite the destruction he was unhurt; he felt some glass in the back of his neck but that was about it.
Not only did Father Schiffer, who was only 30 when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, suffer virtually no ill effects from the explosion, neither he nor his companions suffered ill effects from the radiation. After the conquest of the Americans, their army doctors and the scientists told Schiffer and the other priests that they would die from the radiation perhaps within days. The doctors and scientists were baffled that they had not been killed by the blast.
Protection of Our Lady
Equally confusing for them was the fact that he had no blisters from the radiation or just high levels of radiation on his body. As it turned out Father Schiffer and his seven companions were all alive and in good health 30 years later. Schiffer would die in 1982 at age 67.
Scientists could find no explanation for the survival of the eight Jesuits. But the Jesuits themselves attributed their survival to the protection afforded them by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Lady in her apparition at Fátima, Portugal, in 1917 requested the daily recitation of the rosary. The eight Jesuit priests had complied with this request.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that what happened to the Jesuit priests was a miracle, even if it seems to have happened to a few other people. What happened is something very positive that defies human explanation.
The Shroud of Turin
A very different kind of pointer to the reality of life beyond and the truths of Catholicism is the Shroud of Turin. A linen cloth 14 feet, 3 inches long, and 3 feet, 7 inches wide, it allegedly is the cloth that covered the body of Christ in the tomb. What is impressive about it is that it depicts a crucified man who wore a crown of thorns.
The features of the man are clear. He had a beard and long hair. The whiplash strokes from the flagella are clear. The nails in the hands and feet are obvious. The laceration after death on the side of the body is there. There are bruises on the shoulders and face. Everything is in the shroud that we would expect if the body it wrapped had been Jesus.
The shroud becomes more impressive when modern scientists and artists find it impossible to duplicate it either by painting or scorching. More impressive still is the fact that the shroud is a negative, before the discovery of photography. The shroud can be traced historically since 1357. That is a long time before the discovery of photography in the 1800s.
A photograph of the shroud yields a negative imprint. The negative however proves to be the positive. Although there have been claims that the shroud was painted in the Middle Ages, photography was totally foreign to the medieval mind.
The Carbon-14 Testing Discredited
Nobody knows how the shroud was formed, but the resurrection event would seem to have had something to do with it. One thing is clear. If the body of Jesus had deteriorated in the tomb, we would not have such a burial cloth.
Carbon-14 testing done in the late 20th century claimed to have discredited the shroud as a medieval forgery. But the carbon-14 testing itself was discredited because it did not follow scientific methodology. The Shroud of Turin remains very impressive as a tangible pointer to life beyond death and to the truth of Catholic teaching.
Another very impressive objective marker, historic, is to be found in conjunction with Our Lady of Fátima. It points to the truth of Catholicism and to the reality of life beyond.
The Virgin Mary appeared six times at Cova da Iria near Fátima in Portugal. The recipients of the apparitions were the children Lucia dos Santos, Francisco Marto and his sister Jacinta Marto. The first apparition occurred on May 13, 1917, and the last on Oct. 13 of the same year. Our Lady made numerous requests during these apparitions, including daily reciting of the Rosary.
Our Lady announced that, for the last apparition, a miracle would appear. Gathered in the field were 50,000 to 70,000 people anticipating the remarkable occurrence. They were not disappointed, although many were profoundly frightened. All of a sudden the sun started to dance in the sky. It started to spin especially. Such a phenomenon was probably unique in world history. Eventually the sun returned to its normal position of quiet. A solar phenomenon of this type cannot be taken lightly, especially one witnessed by up to 70,000 people. On that occasion, the Virgin Mary introduced herself as Our Lady of the Rosary. The dancing of the sun is not an issue of faith, but it points to the truth of faith.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Another strong, historic indicator of the truth of Catholicism can be found in the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoazin, one of very few converts among the native Indians of Mexico in the 16th century, traveled long distances to attend Sunday Mass. On Dec. 9, 1531, just outside of Mexico City at Tepeyac Hill, he encountered the Virgin Mary for the first of four apparitions She instructed Juan Diego to go to Bishop Juan Zumárraga with the message that the Blessed Virgin wanted a church built at the spot of the apparition.
Juan Diego went, but the bishop asked for proof of the source of the message. When Our Lady next appeared to Juan Diego, she said that the proof she would send to the bishop would be a bouquet of Castilian roses collected by Juan Diego atop sere, rocky Tepayac Hill. She instructed him to place the flowers in his tilma (cloak) and take them to the bishop. When Juan opened his tilma in front of the bishop and the flowers came tumbling out, the bishop fell to his knees. On the tilma was the image of Our Lady as she had appeared to Juan Diego.
Bishop Zumárraga built a little chapel for the sacred tilma and a little attached room for Juan Diego, whose new task was to explain its history and meaning to visitors. In less than 80 years, about 90 percent of Mexican Indians were converted to Catholicism. Between 1532 and 1538, only seven years, roughly 8 million Aztecs were baptized. It was the largest mass conversion in history. An Indian who was accidentally killed awakened when brought to the tilma, and news of that extraordinary event spread rapidly. The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, including especially the mass conversion, constitutes an impressive pointer to life beyond.
Any single healing could be challenged as a fluke or coincidence, although in some cases that would be difficult to do. But hundred, thousands, even tens of thousands of remarkable healings would be harder to cast off. The early part of the 20th century witnessed the inexplicable phenomenon of Brother André Bessette who is credited with multiple thousands of remarkable healings of all types: cancer, gangrenous limbs, paralysis. He took no credit for himself but gave it to St. Joseph. When André died in 1937, every newspaper in Canada carried the story of this diminutive, uneducated Holy Cross brother. When his body was laid out one million people passed his coffin over a three-day period of time.
Even Catholic believers can experience insecurities about what happens at the moment of death. Hopefully these concrete pointers will prove helpful to them as well as to non-believers. As St. Pope John Paul II often said, “Be Not Afraid.”
DR. DECELLES taught at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for 43 years in the Department of Religious Studies, and currently is a professor emeritus.