A reader writes:
In speaking with my husband on the subject of life after death, he states he was taught that we do not remember the people we lived with or knew in this world--that we make a fresh start in the next. I do not remember this teaching (sleeping during class?), nor do I believe that I will not see/remember relatives and friends I knew here on earth. This is contrary to my common sense. Is this really a Catholic teaching? Personally, I believe our friends and families are waiting to welcome us into our new life.
This is a very interesting question, because it highlights certain misconceptions on both sides. Your husband's belief is a common one, and it usually stems from a misunderstanding of Christ's teaching that, in the resurrection, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25), but will be like angels in Heaven.
That does not mean, however, that we enter Heaven with a "clean slate." We will still be the people that we were on earth, just purified of all of our sins and enjoying forever the beatific vision (the vision of God). We will retain our memories of our life. None of us are truly "individuals" here on earth. Our family and friends are an important part of who we are as people, and we remain in relationship in Heaven to all of those whom we knew throughout our lives.
As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes in its entry on Heaven, the blessed souls in Heaven "delight greatly in the company of Christ, the angels, and the saints, and in the reunion with so many who were dear to them on earth."
The Church's teaching on the communion of saints make this clear. The saints in Heaven; the suffering souls in Purgatory; and those of us still here on earth all know each other as persons, not as nameless, faceless individuals. If we were to make a "fresh start" in Heaven, our personal relationship with, for instance, Mary, the Mother of God, would be impossible. We pray for our relatives who have died and are suffering in Purgatory in the full assurance that, once they have entered Heaven, they will intercede for us as well before the Throne of God.
However, none of this implies that life in Heaven is simply another version of life on earth, and this is where you and your husband may share a misconception. His belief in a "fresh start" seems to imply that we begin again in creating new relationships, while your belief that "our friends and families are waiting to welcome us into our new life," while not wrong per se, may suggest that you think that our relationships will continue to grow and change, and that we will live as families in Heaven in some way analogous to how we live as families on earth.
But in Heaven, our focus is not on other people, but on God. Yes, we continue to know each other, but now we know each other most completely in our mutual vision of God. Absorbed in the beatific vision, we are still the people we were on earth, and so we have added joy in knowing that those we loved share that vision with us.
And, of course, in our desire that others be able to share in the beatific vision, we will continue to intercede for those whom we knew who are still struggling in Purgatory and on earth.
If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.
More on Heaven, Purgatory, and the Communion of Saints:
- On the Last Things and Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven - Lesson Thirty-Seventh (from the Baltimore Catechism No. 2)
- Reader Question: What Happened to Purgatory?
- Reader Question: Does the Church Still Believe in Purgatory?
- Reader Question: Is There a Scriptural Basis for Purgatory?
- Reader Question: Prayer for the Dead
- Reader Question: Was Christ's Death Enough?
- Reader Question: Why Do Catholics Believe in Purgatory?
- What Does the Communion of Saints Mean?