Last week, I stopped by to see our 5th and 6th graders at Sacred Heart School. A simple visit to say “hello” led to an impromptu session answering their random questions about our faith. A 5th grader asked me: “Do you have to be Catholic to go to heaven?” Now, that’s a great question. So, let’s begin with “What is heaven?”
We all have our own vision of heaven and the joys heaven will contain. Scripture tells us three things about heaven very clearly: 1) The happiness of heaven is perfect, 2) The happiness of heaven is indescribable and unimaginable, and 3) In heaven, we shall see God face-to-face. Heaven offers much more than we could ever hope to attain here on earth. Heaven is the promise to live in eternal joy, in perfect friendship, with the Most Holy Trinity, our Holy Mother Mary, and all the angels and saints.
As followers of Christ, we have been offered this gift of heaven because our souls have been saved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. But, while Jesus offered Himself freely for all people, God was humble enough to allow each of 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.
One of the most misunderstood teachings of the Church is that outside the Church there is no salvation. In other words, all salvation comes from Christ with the Church as His Body (Catechism 846). While true, it is important to note this does not necessarily apply to those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ. That’s because we must always remember the great mercy of God. Anyone who seeks God with a sincere heart and tries in their actions to do His will as they know it may also attain heaven (Catechism 847). Jesus died for every single person; salvation is meant for everyone. Anyone who is ignorant of the Gospel, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with their understanding of it, can be saved.
So, in short: no, you do not have to be Catholic to go to heaven. However, as Catholics, we can never forget our God-given duty to evangelize and make disciples of all people. We must have the courage to live our life in such a way that emulates the life and love of Jesus. We must have the courage to speak truth in a time when so many people are afraid of it. While I am 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. May we pray that our words and actions lead others to come to know Jesus and the hope of eternal happiness in heaven.