I received a phone call notifying me that Javier, Ana’s 5-monthold had just passed away. We immediately went to see how she was.
I didn’t know what to expect...
It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. We were about to have lunch when, all of a sudden, the phone rang. The voice on the other side of the line sounded serious and worried. “Sister?” the voice asked. After I assured the caller that she was talking to a Sister, she told me, “Sister, Javier – Ana and Antonio’s baby – just died.” I couldn’t believe it. I was completely in shock. “What? Javier?” was all I could say. Javier was five months’ old, the youngest of four siblings. He was a healthy and beautiful baby that seemed to be growing well. The woman on the other side of the line responded, “Sorry to be so blunt, but that’s how death is – why try to sugarcoat it?” “But – what happened?” I asked. “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). I think you Sisters should come as soon as possible. Ana needs you.”
We immediately headed out the door. Walking in Ana’s door, I gave her a hug. In between sobs, she told me, “Sister, I had offered him up to Our Lady, so he could be her missionary.” I responded, “Ana, you were willing to part with him, to let him go preach the Gospel in far-away lands; with that same generosity in accepting God’s will, let him go to Heaven.”
That day, the afternoon hours passed by both slowly and painfully. I realized that when a person of faith undergoes a tragedy of this nature, it’s as though God shines a spotlight on them amidst the darkness of this valley of tears, as if to say, “Observe how they react. Observe what the do. Listen to what they say.” Only a woman of faith finds the strength to console others amidst her own pain. That’s how Ana was that afternoon: painfully broken, as a mother who has just suddenly lost her youngest child, but ready to offer others consolation and find meaning in this suffering.
Their mourning was intensified by the fact that Javier’s little body had been taken to the Forensic Institute for an autopsy. Without seeing his body there, it was hard to believe that he was never going to come back. Nearly 24 hours later, the little coffin reached the funeral home. Javier looked like a little angel that had just fallen asleep, nestled in his white sheets. One could not help but be moved at such a sight. As I left the room, which was overflowing with visitors, a friend of ours stopped me with an inquisitive look on his face, as if to say, “So, now what?” I told him, “We believe in the resurrection of the body.” I tried not to let my voice quiver, but I must admit it was no easy feat.
Ana is a lay member of the Home of the Mother and many of her friends from the Home were there, supporting her with their prayers and their presence. Many of them are themselves parents with young children. They exchanged glances of dismay and whispered amongst themselves. One of them came over to me and said, “You know what we were talking about, Sister? We were commenting that in spite of all this pain, Ana is lucky. She knows she has a child in Heaven, but we still don’t know what will become of our children.” The light of faith had led them to the heart of the question.
With the news of Javier’s death, we immediately tried to locate Ana’s sister, who is a Servant Sister of the Home of the Mother. However, it was impossible. At the time, Sr. Sara Maria was in the heart of the Ecuadorian rainforest, in Puyo. Our Sisters visit this area on a regular basis, to preach the Gospel to the indigenous people there who are only now, in the 21st century, receiving their first evangelization. The Shuar indians live in very small communities of thirty or forty people, which they call “villages”. In order to reach these villages, the Sisters have to hike for miles through the jungle. That means, hours and hours of trekking through knee-deep mud, crossing rivers with strong currents, with the water up to their waste and chest, amidst the dangers of snakes, spiders... The Sisters undertake all these hardships and risks in order to save a handful of poor illiterate children and adults.
When we were finally able to contact Sr. Sara Maria and tell her the news, her reply was, “Look how little effort it took to save that soul.” Of course, compared to what she had just experienced in the jungle, Javier's salvation had been much easier.
I remember, not too long ago, on visiting a profoundly Catholic family, I was struck by a phrase taped to the wall of their house, in the entrance: “The most important thing is getting to Heaven.” I remember thinking, “This sentence should be written on all the houses in the city.” We so easily forget what our goal in this life should be. And when we forget where we’re going, we get lost along the way.
F.J. Sheed says that, “Death is an end, an end not of life but of wavering.” As long as we live on this earth, we can go from grace to sin, from being friends of God to being His enemies. It is a constant battle in which we can choose God or choose ourselves and turn against God. We’re candidates for both Heaven and Hell. We are free to decide. Of course, in that sense, death ends our wavering. If my goal was to live for God and death found me united to Him in grace, my soul will finally reach what it was created for: union with God, seeing God face-to-face. We cannot even begin to imagine all this, because our imagination is only able to formulate ideas of what it has experienced somehow through the senses and our senses only receive sensations from the material world. Heaven is real, but it’s a spiritual reality. However, the fact that it’s unimaginable does not mean that it’s inconceivable or irrational. Our intelligence should be enlightened by faith, resisting the temptation to believe that only what we can perceive with our senses is real.
Heaven is real and it is where all our desires will be satisfied. There, we will experience sheer happiness. Only those who find no meaning in their life here on earth can think that Heaven is boring. It makes sense. Those who struggle to find meaning in their life – the word “life” understood as something that ends – will obviously find the thought of living forever unbearable. However, those who have begun to get a foretaste of “the Lord’s goodness” (cf. Psalm 34:8), those who have had an experience – albeit short and limited, as is everything in this life – of the Lord’s love, mercy, forgiveness, fatherly care, etc... will necessarily yearn for the fullness of love that we will only find when we see God face-to-face.
When Javier’s little white coffin was placed at the feet of the altar, the priest who presided the celebration surprised many by saying that we were not here to celebrate a funeral for Javier. In fact, the Church does not celebrate funerals for children who are baptized but have not yet reached the age of reason. The texts for the Mass in these cases do not invoke God’s forgiveness for the deceased, as is the case with adults. Rather, the prayers give thanks to God for the life of this child, who is now considered to be among the saints in Heaven. Ana’s friends were right in saying, “She knows she has a child in Heaven, but we still don’t know what will become of our children.”
That said, my intention is not to send all children under the age of five months to Heaven. Each of us have our mission and our task in this life. However, when the Lord permits a little angel like Javier to fly to Heaven so soon, it’s a call to fix our gaze on Him amidst all our pain and tears. And yet, we do so with sincere and profound gratitude – even when we do not understand.
Two or three months after all this took place, I went to visit Ana at her home. I noticed that posted up on the fridge was a drawing done by José, Ana’s second child, who is 8 years old. At school, the teacher had told him to draw a picture of his family. I had a look at it and when I understood what he had drawn, tears came to my eyes. In the lower half of the paper, José had drawn his father and mother, his grandma, himself, and his living siblings – all of them smiling. But that wasn’t all. Above, in Heaven, on a cloud, he had drawn Jesus with a little baby in his arms: Baby Javier. Jesus and Javier also had big smiles on their faces. There was a giant yellow sun that illuminated everything. José’s drawing is a catechism lesson in itself. I thought of those who wonder, “How do you tell a child that his little brother isn’t here anymore?” The answer is obvious. The best way to tell them is to tell them the truth – with the right words, with delicacy, but most of all with faith and hope in eternal life. José didn’t draw Javier in a dark hole, but bathed in light, happy with Jesus.
We are God’s children and the most important thing in our life is that when we reach the end, we make it to Heaven to be with God our Father. In this sense, a Christian parent’s first responsibility is making sure their children make it to Heaven. If Heaven is not a priority for us, we’re missing out on our life’s goal and on the education of the children the Lord has entrusted to us.
Javier’s already there. Let’s make sure the rest of us make it.
Article contributed by Sr. Beatriz Liaño, SHM
Originally titled "Antonio and Ana have a child in Heaven"
Reprinted with permission ©HM Magazine; º190 May-June 2016
- Published in What happens if…?