Inside Heaven’s Vestibule
Almost one score years ago, June 21, 1993, a new priestly season began for me. On that day, I started my new assignment as the chaplain of Holy Family Home in Philadelphia to over 100 Residents who were under the temporal and spiritual care of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Since then, over 300 souls have gone home to God under my priestly watch. For that stretch of years, those hundreds of deaths may not sound like a lot to a pastor of a large church; but for me, it was burying my little church community—three times over.
Falling in love with my elderly flock, I whispered in front of the tabernacle, “I can’t stay here. I’m always in mourning, facing death. I can’t!” Therefore, I considered a transfer; until, I listened wholeheartedly to my Spiritual Professors.
Whenever a Resident died, I heard echoing throughout the house: “Another graduate… With flying colors… Summa cum laude.” And referring to the Funeral Mass, a holy soul, Simon, would inquire: “What time does the graduation ceremony commence?” And the wisecrack that always made me laugh: “Who’s that one think she is jumping ahead of the line; I’m older!”
However, the one statement that pierced me, like Cupid’s arrow, happened at a death bed. Family, staff, Residents, Little Sisters, and I gathered around our departing Catherine. Saint Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Saint Joseph medals were pinned to her bed clothes. A pearl rosary, wrapped around her hands, matched the color of her wavy hair. After the anointing, plenary indulgence, and hymns, we waited for the Savior to come and take home His own.
Gazing at her radiance, I saw myself peeking into the glory of God. Hallowing the silence more deeply, a Little Sister spoke softly the hope of salvation. Exalting my spirit, she whispered a reverent tone: “We are in the vestibule of heaven, the vestibule of—”
Suddenly, like one surprised at their birthday party, our beloved Catherine gasped, smiled, and died—right in front of my gaping countenance. There and then, I decided to stay at my vestibule assignment.
In the vestibule of heaven, throughout my many years with the Little Sisters, I have been privileged to witness numerous supernatural signs. At the sacred times, I saw departing souls fixated and reaching for someone—above this world. Other souls lifted up their heads, moved their lips, and spoke without words to someone—beyond this world. And among the many beautiful deaths, there were the fragrances—not of this world—and the glows, like halos, around the faces of those who have passed through the vestibule of heaven—to the above and beyond of this world.
It would take a book or two to describe and detail my supernatural experiences and volumes about my natural experiences at Holy Family Home where we all struggle to live the Gospel. However, when we are in that holy vestibule, we are gracefully united as one body, one spirit in Christ. One sacred time, I was united to a dying Resident at the hour of death—in heaven’s vestibule—and didn’t even know it, until the next day:
Joseph, a Resident, was a master carpenter. Whenever I needed something repaired, I called on him. What I enjoyed the most, as he worked in my room, were the conversations. Our talks continued with walks in our walled-in garden. He always greeted me, saying, “Yo, Father.”
Returning his hello, I would say, “Yo, Joe.”
As the years passed, I still met him walking in the garden—but no more conversations. Only, “Yo, Father.”
Soon, even the greetings ended. Yet, for a while, he continued his walks, lost in the garden of his soul. In his last year of life, I would see him sitting at the table after the meals, staring into nowhere. “Yo, Joe!” He didn’t know me, or anyone else, anymore.
When he was dying, I was showering. By the time I arrived into his room, Father Steve, a visiting priest, was ministering the Sacrament of the Sick. After the hymns of the Sisters, he stopped breathing for a long half-minute. I thought he died. I began praying, “Eternal rest grant—”
Suddenly, Joseph breathed again and kept on breathing. Turning to his daughter, Katherine, also a Resident, I said, “I’m going out for my mission Mass, and I will light a candle for your dad.”
That night, I got back home about nine o’clock. “Was he still breathing?” I wondered.
Approaching his doorway, I heard, “Yo, Father!”
Stunned, I saw him alert, sitting up in bed by himself—a resurrection, indeed. “Yo, Joe!” I responded.
“How are you, Father?”
“Me?” I asked, sitting down. “You scared the heaven into me.”
“All the Little Sisters prayed around you today. You were anointed by Father Steve. I lit a candle for you. You almost died.”
“How about that!” he said, radiating a smile. “When am I going home, Father?”
Thinking he thought he was in the hospital, I said, “You’re already home, Joe.”
He gazed around trying to recognize something. Then, he reverently shook his head, whispering, “No I’m not.”
“Yes you are!” I proclaimed, patting his thigh.
“Ah, Father, you’re kidding me,” he said, grinning and glowing.
“Listen, buddy, get your rest. I’ll see you tomorrow, and we’ll talk more.” I gave him a blessing. Grasping his hands, I whispered, “Good night, Lazarus.”
The next morning, I hurried straight to his room again. Before entering, I met his daughter. Breathing heavily, I asked, “Katherine, how’s your dad?”
“Father, he died last night at 9:45.” A half-hour after I left him.
Gasping, I realized that when I was trying to convince him about his being home at Holy Family, he was trying to convince me about his going home to the Holy Family—through the vestibule of heaven. Now I knew, then and there, right before his departure, at his hour of death (when all his prayed ‘Hail Mary’s’ were fulfilled) I was alone with him in that sacred vestibule, the vestibule of heaven!
There’s a story about a little girl and her dad walking the beach at night. The twinkling stars were glittering a spectacular show for them. In the sacred silence, the father asked his mesmerized daughter, “Katherine, what are you thinking?” She said, “If the bottom side of heaven is so beautiful, daddy, how wonderful must be the other side!”
How beautiful Holy Family Home, the bottom side of heaven, under the loving care of the Little Sisters of the Poor, how wonderful my almost one score years with them, and how holy, holy, holy, this side of glory, inside Heaven’s Vestibule.
Father Douglas McKay
Chaplain, Holy Family Home