The summer before 7th grade, my grandfather died. It was the first time I had encountered the death of a loved one.
I remember being struck at my grandmother’s composure throughout this time–the weeks leading up to his death, the funeral, and the days after. Of course she was sad and grieving, she had been married to my grandfather for 50 years.
Yet, throughout it all, there was a peace she maintained, that can only be attributed to her deep faith in God. Both my grandpa and my grandma were /are devout Catholics. His death was put in the context of our faith by my grandmother and my parents. We sought solace in the fact that he would be reunited with God. We knew, in the depths of our hearts, that he had lived his whole life on earth with the hope for a greater life when he died.
At the age of 12, I only partially understood how great a gift our faith is when losing a loved one. Perhaps an even greater gift was the knowledge that my grandpa had lived an authentically Christian life, consistently seeking to do God’s will. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate that more fully. But I’ve often wondered how things would have been were it not for our faith. Moreover, how would we have coped if my grandpa had not been Catholic?
What is Heaven?
We all have our own vision of heaven and the joys that place will contain. But in reality, heaven offers us much more than we could ever hope to attain here on earth. Heaven is the promise to live eternally, in perfect friendship, with the Most Holy Trinity, our Holy Mother Mary, and all the angels and saints. We have been offered this gift because our souls have been saved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. While Jesus offered himself freely for all people, God was humble enough to allow us to choose salvation. We can choose to accept Jesus’ sacrifice and live our life as a child of God, or we can reject it. As Catholics, we believe that those who die in God’s grace and friendship, those who chose to accept salvation, will reach heaven.
However, we also believe in hell — eternal separation from God. In Scripture, Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who refuse to believe in God and be converted (CCC 1034). Hearing this might cause us to worry–for our ourselves or for loved ones. And it certainly raises the question: Do you have to be Catholic to go to Heaven?
Salvation Outside the Church
One of the most misconstrued teachings of the Church, and the cause for many discussions, is that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” In other words, all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body (CCC 846).
While true, it is important to note that this is “not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church.” Indeed, if these people seek God with a sincere heart, and try, in their actions to do his will as they know it, they may also attain heaven (CCC 847).
Baptism – A Necessity for Salvation
Baptism of Water
All who who have heard the Gospel, and who have had the possibility of asking for baptism, need to be baptized in order to attain salvation. Jesus affirms the necessity of this sacrament saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). However, our God is a merciful and loving God. While he has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, God is not bound by his sacraments.
Baptism of Blood
The Church has always taught that those who die for the sake of the faith, before they have received the sacrament of Baptism, are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament. Thus, salvation may be attained.
Baptism of Desire
Similarly to a Baptism of blood, the desire for baptism, while not a sacrament, also brings about the fruits of Baptism. An individual who were to die before being baptized, but had expressed a clear desire to receive this sacrament, and repented for his/her sins, would be assured salvation.
God’s Mercy and Our Mission
We must always remember the great mercy of God. Jesus died for every single person, salvation is meant for everyone. The Holy Spirit offers every person, in a way known only to God, the possibility of being made partakers of the Paschal mystery (Lumen Gentium, 16). “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved” (CCC 1260).
So, in short, no, you do not have to be Catholic to go to heaven. However, as Catholics, we should be aware of our God-given duty to evangelize, to make disciples of all people. Have the courage to live your life in such a way that emulates Jesus’, have the courage to speak truth in a time when so many people are afraid of it! While I am often grateful that the salvation of others does not lie in my hands, I am aware that I have a responsibility to help lead others to Christ. It is my prayer that through your life, others may come to know Jesus. May we live a life filled with the hope of heaven!