Browsing The Northern Cross

Father Michael Schmitz: How can we keep our faith in the face of death?

There is a teacher at my Catholic school who just died. He was so young, and all of us students loved him so much. We all miss him so much. I am beginning to doubt my faith in all of this. What can I do?

Thank you so much for asking this question. There are times when “an answer” is not necessarily “the answer” that we need. This might be that time.

Father Michael Schmitz
Father Michael Schmitz
Ask Father Mike

You asked the question what you can do to keep your faith in the face of death and loss, but there are real wounds in your heart and in the hearts of the people around you. I think that wounds first need healing, not lecturing.

I am going to talk about what faith is and the role of faith. I am also going to offer some thoughts on how we look at death. But please be patient with me. I am a (relatively) old man who has been thinking and praying and living with things like suffering, death and faith for a long time.

I think I may have started diving into these realities when I was about 15 years old. Because of that, I sometimes forget to be patient and gentle with others who may not have encountered death before. I sometimes am too quick to give an answer rather than to remember that your encounter with death is not simply your reflecting on the concept of death; you have lost a significant person in your life. At this moment, death is very personal for you.

Your sadness, your grief, your loss: this is personal. And I think that this is a good place to start. Faith is personal as well.

I don’t merely mean to say that “faith is one’s personal belief.” I am saying that Christian faith is not faith in an idea. Christian faith is trust in a Person. Too many people will reduce their faith to a set of beliefs. Of course, those beliefs are absolutely essential. The Creed is necessary, since it encapsulates the “stuff” we believe about God. But faith isn’t merely believing in a list of “whats.” Faith is trust in a “Who.”

If faith were no more than hoping for an outcome (“I have faith that everything will work out”), then it would be incredibly tenuous. At the first sign that we didn’t get what we wanted, at the first moment when we experienced loss, at the first major obstacle in life, we would be dangerously poised to abandon a faith that “didn’t deliver.”

But as Christians, our faith is not hope for an outcome. Our faith is trust in a Person.

We have faith in the God who created all that is. We have faith in the God who is the source of all that is good and loving and true.

We have faith in the God who loves us and was even willing to redeem us through his own work of becoming human, suffering and dying for us.

We have faith in the God who has proven that we can trust him even when all appears darkest. This whole thing is about trusting the God who has proven that he is trustworthy — even in the face of death.

For you to have faith, then, might look a certain way. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be sad. In fact, the more we love someone, the more their absence in our life hurts us. It doesn’t mean that you don’t grieve. We mourn any number of things when someone dies. We grieve over what might have been. We weep for all of the lives they could have touched and made more joyful. We are heartbroken for all of the things we should have done for them or said to them. Sometimes death is the only thing that reminds us how special other people are.

But we also have hope. And faith. Remember, our faith is trust in the Person of Jesus. Jesus has conquered death and has made it possible for us to live with God forever.

Your teacher knew Jesus. Your teacher had faith in Jesus. You can therefore have faith that the same Jesus who rose from the dead can also raise up your teacher. While our hearts are broken, and while we grieve over the loss of this good person and over our various regrets, if we love them we also have joy. Your teacher had faith in Jesus. Now your teacher doesn’t need faith anymore. Your teacher has Jesus.

You asked, “What can I do?”

We know that most of those who die in Christ are not fully prepared to enter into the fullness of God’s presence. Most of us will need to experience some kind of purification. You can actually help your teacher by praying for him. Offer up your Holy Communion for his soul. Offer up praying the rosary for him and for all the souls in purgatory.

When you walk by his classroom, rather than merely be reminded of your loss, also be reminded to pray for him.

Pray for your teacher and for every person who has died. And when you do this, know that your faith will gain ever greater strength, because you will be exercising it. Every prayer you utter will be an exercise of trust in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.