“Ask a Priest: What Can I Say to a Grieving Widow With No Faith?”

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Q: When my brother-in-law died, it was sudden but not unexpected as he was in poor health. My sister called me as I’m her closest relative, just a few blocks away. She was and is devastated. She has been agnostic for most of her life. They were married in the Catholic Church, though he wasn’t Catholic. I’m at a loss on how to console her since she has no faith. Of course, I’m praying for them behind the scenes. Anyway, what happens to him? I’ve read somewhere that at moment of death God will give you the opportunity to finally say yes to him. I’m praying that this is true. Any words of wisdom? Thank you. – G.W.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I’m sorry to hear about the death of your brother-in-law.

We can’t really guess the state of someone’s soul, including those who didn’t seem to have faith. God alone knows the heart and mind of each person.

Perhaps your brother-in-law was secretly searching for truth and trying to live the best way he knew how. God takes all of that into account and is as merciful as he can be at the particular judgment.

And at the moment of death the Almighty could give a person a special grace to say yes to him. We can always hope.

In the meantime, it would be good to pray for your sister and brother-in-law, and to let your sister know that you are praying for the both of them.

This sudden death might be an occasion for your sister to reconsider some of her own beliefs, or lack of them. At this moment she might even be more open to hearing about our hope in eternal life.

You might try mentioning to her and that the love she had for her husband is a taste of the love that God has for each of us.

Indeed, the love that couples have for each other can give them a sense of something higher than themselves that unites them. This, too, is a taste of the Almighty, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

You might try explaining at an opportune moment why you are praying for her husband. Our prayers for the dead are our sign of faith in a heaven, and they express our hope for the resurrection of all the deceased someday.

Above all, it would be good to just reassure your sister of your love for her. If helpful, you might pass on books that speak about the faith and/or the afterlife. Two suggestions would be Heaven, the Heart’s Deepest Longing and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven.

I hope some of this helps.

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  1. Thank you Father for a thoughtful response to the man, concerned for his sister (who is Catholic, and did unite in marriage at God’s altar) While the sister’s faith may be weak and her soul mate ‘not Catholic,’ but maybe some form Christian practice and Baptized? While they both may be weak in FAITH, God does indeed see ‘the heart’ of these two souls baptized to the life of His ‘ONLY’ Divine Son. The sister and her husband may have been ‘agnostic,’ which means they have some vague understanding of God, but GOD, who is eternal, can’t judge harshly on what a soul does not understand. (a first grader given 8th grade reading material, would not be judged harshly if unable to comprehend that which is beyond his capability… the two terms are vincible and invincible ignorance. Invincible ignorance of faith in practice is that which the person could not remove by reasonable diligence) Try as a first grader might try to read an 8th grade book, his invincible ignorance of the topic of the book and vocabulary would make any teacher merciful… proud even if the first grader could read the title of the book.

    The only ‘fear’ for a loved one who leaves earth is whether they lived a life contrary to God. AKA acted on a grave matter, with sufficient reflection of the matter, and with all free will knowledge sinned mortally against God. Since your sister and perhaps brother in law were ‘trying’ (Baptized, Married at God’s altar, and generally lived charitably to others) I WOULD SAY, as FATHER put it so much more concisely: HAVE HOPE IN GOD’S MERCY for your brother in law and have Masses said for him and for your sister. Be there for her and just listen without advice (at first) which will SHOW your faith in LOVE (GOD) . . . perhaps having a Mass said for her husband is the opportune time to invite her to come to Mass and pray with you.

  2. Remember the words of our Lord: ‘forgive them Father, they KNOW NOT what they do.’ Those who crucified our Lord, I would think were of INVINCIBLE ignorance that they could not overcome because the grace of God was not yet part of them, by reason of the original sin of Eve and Adam, thus our merciful Savior gave of His life, for such souls. WE who have faith, with God’s graced presence part of us, can ‘ask for’ (pray for) those who do not know how to pray for themselves. THIS is the benefit of being a part of the ONE BODY of CHRIST. (church) and GOD will bless us for such and raise up those in need of His mercy. Anything we ask, in NAME OF God’s ‘only’ Son… God is pleased to provide. KEEP THE FAITH and the HOPE in the work of Jesus Christ… AND the Father by the power of The Holy Spirit (LOVE) Life is eternal. Remember Jesus who ‘raised the dead’ TO LIFE (Lazarus comes to mind) Remember Doubting Thomas, who had to see to believe and our risen Lord let him see. I would say as long as your brother in law as not living contrary to God’s ways, the Lord will allow him TO SEE and TO BELIEVE in purgatory.

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