Every year when we celebrate the feast of St. Pius of Pietrelcina on September 23, still fondly known as “Padre Pio,” I gratefully remember the day I was “introduced” to him in the mid-1990s. It happened when my dry cleaner, Curt, dropped off a relic of the deceased Capuchin friar along with our newly cleaned clothes. “He’s a very powerful intercessor,” Curt said as he handed me a brochure with information about the legendary mystic, which also contained prayers for his miraculous intercession...Read More
With the immense popularity of “Heaven Is For Real” and other books about experiences in the afterlife, the topic of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) has taken front and center stage. Though the Catholic Church has no formal teaching on NDEs, plenty of people claim to have had one, including my late husband Bernie. The descriptions of these experiences often take on a tone of either Protestant Fundamentalism or the New Age. But Bernie’s experience was--would I dare to say--amazingly, authentically Catholic!
As a Catholic theologian who has taught the faith for fifteen years, I have never publicly addressed the topic of NDEs before. Those experiences fall into the category of what the Church calls “private” revelation—a topic I tend to stay away from when teaching Catholic doctrine. * However, Bernie’s life-changing NDE, chronicled in detail in my book Miracle Man, compelled me to share his incredible story with others. Why? Because Bernie’s “come to Jesus,” which he shared with me after miraculously waking up from a six week coma that was induced by a massive heart attack and multiple organ failure, highlighted some important truths of the Catholic faith that could use re-stating today. These include:
- We don’t get a “free pass” to heaven because we’re convinced we’re “a good person.”
- We are judged by God on the good or evil we have done in this life (Rom. 2:5-10).
- God, who loves each of us personally and infinitely, has gone and will go to great lengths to save us and bring us home to heaven.
- In the end, life and eternal life are about LOVE--and life on this earth is meant to teach us to love and be loved.
Bernie learned all of those lessons first hand during his NDE after suffering “the widow maker” in December 2008, which he inexplicably survived. Within a week of his heart attack, Bernie’s heart, liver, kidneys and lungs failed, leaving him comatose and on life support as doctors tried to save him—uncertain if he had any brain function left. Astoundingly, Bernie did an about face and began to recover, surprising his doctors and earning him the name “Miracle Man” among the hospital’s medical staff. He eventually woke up, was weaned off the ventilator and regained his ability to speak. Though still in the Intensive Care Unit, Bernie asked me one day if I wanted to hear about his Near-Death Experience.
I responded, of course, with a resounding “Yes!” Given the fact that I had prayed for his conversion for 24 long years and that I was at his bedside the night a nurse shocked his heart three times to keep him alive, I had a hunch he may have met God. But I never expected to hear what he said next.
“I died and I clearly remember it,” Bernie began. “I saw my soul leave my body and was looking down on my body from above.” After describing in detail how he saw the condition of his soul, as well as the things he had done in his life that were pleasing and unpleasing to God, Bernie shared this zinger: “Judy, I followed the light all of the way to heaven. And when I got there, I wasn’t permitted to enter.” That from a man who steadfastly maintained that he was sure he was going to heaven because he was a “good person.”
Bernie was then sent back by God to make amends for his life, but not before meeting terrifying creatures that beat him brutally as they screamed in his ears repeatedly, “We’re here to help you!!!” You’ll have to read the book to find out how the story ends (it’s nothing short of amazing), but suffice it for now to say that Bernie was a changed man after his NDE. So much so that he spent the last six weeks of his life telling me, “You have no idea how much God loves you…You have absolutely no idea how much God loves you!”
Because in spite of seeing his own inner darkness and his need for conversion and purification, Bernie’s overarching experience of his encounter with God was one of unfathomable love. Love that died on the Cross for his sins. Love that chased him down to beckon him into a relationship with Himself. And Love that waited to embrace him and welcome him home with the words, “You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.”
In the end, what matters most about “private” revelations like NDEs is the fruit they produce. In other words, they can be considered authentic insofar as they help us to “live more fully” by “Christ’s definitive revelation” (CCC par. 67). Christ revealed that God is love, and that Love holds us accountable for our lives and for our actions. Though those two statements seem contradictory in today’s world, they nonetheless contain the age-old truth of Christianity. That’s the truth Bernie discovered when he met God. And it’s the truth that would ultimately transform him and lead him to eternal life.
*(See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 67 for the Church’s teaching on “private” revelation.)
I feel called to share this excerpt from Miracle Man on the sixth anniversary of Bernie's death. I wrote this final "Bernie Update" to our family and friends days after his funeral on the Feast of St. Joseph. The Miracle Man taught me all about persevering love, and our journey together infused my being with Holy Hope… the hope that is borne of suffering and birthed through love. Bernard Joseph Klein, rest in peace.
March 22, 2009, Final Update
Bernard Joseph Klein was buried on the Feast of St. Joseph on Thursday, March 19, 2009. When we awoke, a dense fog covered the area, but by the time we arrived at Our Lady of the Lake Church, the sun had broken through, ushering in a glorious sunny day. It is difficult to share what is in my heart, but I would like to give you a glimpse of the day in Bernie's honor.
The funeral liturgy was absolutely beautiful, as we were graced with the angelic voices of Kitty Cleveland and the St. Scholastica Academy Choir under the direction of a most gifted pianist and friend, Sharon Scharmer. Fr. John Talamo, Fr. Beau Charbonnet and Fr. Robert Cavalier honored us by presiding over the liturgy, and their presence on the altar in gold robes made present to us Christ's priestly presence in heaven—sacred, redemptive, all-powerful. I have never been so happy to be Catholic as I was on Thursday. I stood in awe and wonder as I watched the rich symbolism of the funeral Mass unfold, reminding us of Bernie's baptismal vows, his presence at the heavenly banquet of the Lamb of God, his marriage to the Eternal Bridegroom. As sad a day as it was, it was equally joy filled thanks to the consolation of the hope of heaven, and the love of our family and friends—all tangible and very real to me as I stood in the church with the symbols of heaven before my eyes surrounded by people who love me, Bernie and our family.
When the funeral Mass ended, we processed to the cemetery of St. Joseph Abbey, where many of the monks and priests of our archdiocese are laid to rest. It is holy ground, full of silence, prayer and majestic oaks. As we drove up to Bernie's gravesite following the hearse, seven Marines stood at full attention waiting for his arrival. It took my breath away to see them standing there and to remember how proud Bernie was of serving in the Marine Corps—the place where he found his personal gifts and his identity as a man. A twenty-one-gun salute and "Taps" followed our prayers, along with the folding of the American flag accompanied by Kitty's gorgeous voice singing "Amazing Grace." It was a moment none of us will soon forget.
After the services concluded, we made our way to the home of our dear friends, Angele and Gary Darling. Gary is an incredible chef and he laid out a delicious banquet for us, including his famous Jamaican Jerk Chicken Salad and Mediterranean Hummus. We ate, laughed and cried as we remembered Bernie and his unique personality. A gentle wind blew through the French doors that were open throughout the house, and the Holy Spirit was very present as we shared a meal and fellowship in remembrance of Bernie. I returned home that evening with my heart full, feeling as though I had been to a wedding reception instead of a funeral. It was a happy ending to a day I had dreaded and prayed against for months —the funeral of my spouse.
As I write these words, my heart is full of gratitude for Bernie's love and life. I am grateful for his illness and for three months spent in a hospital room filled with tender moments of love and grace. I am grateful for the outpouring of support, love and prayer that came forth in the midst of such a profound personal tragedy. And I am grateful to God for his faithfulness, and for the reality that he continually seeks after us, wooing us with opportunities to know and embrace his Fatherly love. In the end, that was what this journey was all about—for Bernie and for me.
Thank you for your love and for carrying Bernie on the wings of prayer into the arms of Our Lord. I am eternally grateful, and I know he is too.
With love and thanksgiving.