A Guide to the Next Life Reflects on a 'New Interest' in Heaven

Anthony DeStefano is not only executive director of Priests for Life, but he's also the best-selling author of A Travel Guide to Heaven. Since the book was published late in 2003, it has sold upwards of one million copies around the world and has been endorsed by Protestants as well as Catholics.

When the Barbara Walters special “Heaven — Where Is It? How Do We Get There?” airs on ABC Dec. 20, DeStefano will be among the diverse guests discussing their views of heaven.

He spoke with Joseph Pronechen from his home in New York.

Why the new interest in heaven by so many?

I don't really know. One thing that's certain is that it's pretty hard to live in denial about the ultimate questions of life and death in a post-9/11 world. When you're able to sit in front of your television set and watch 3,000 people die in a matter of seconds, it can make the most lukewarm agnostics think about heaven. But beyond that, I think it's simply a case of our Godless culture failing to satisfy the deepest needs and desires of our hearts. People everywhere, no matter what their faith tradition, are searching for something else. Secularism, like communism, is just a bankrupt philosophy, and we're beginning to see some of the fallout.

How did you get involved with the Barbara Walters special?

The producer of the special heard about my book through my agent, Peter Miller. Then, after we spoke a few times, he told me that Barbara had read my book and made extensive notations in it. I was interviewed by both her and her producer for about 45 minutes. I also introduced Barbara's producer to several bishops, priests and theologians at the Vatican, and he subsequently consulted with them.

When you first wrote the book, did you ever think you'd be talking one day about heaven on national TV?

I really didn't. In the back of my mind I felt there was a possibility the book could be popular because heaven is such a universal subject. But I was a first-time author and it was almost impossible to get the book published. I sent it to 100 agents in New York and 99 rejected it. I never imaged it would be so successful considering how difficult it was to break through the door initially.

The show explores heaven from the perspectives of different religions. How is the Catholic view distinctive?

The Catholic Church has the richest and most developed theology of heaven, bar none. All denominations of Christianity agree that there will be a resurrection, for example, but in the Catholic Church we really focus on the importance of the physical element of that resurrection.

We have Thomas Aquinas and his description of the five attributes of glorified, risen bodies. We have doctrines such as the Assumption of Mary, which confirm the fact that we will have real bodies in heaven. We have the sacraments as well as sacramentals, all of which serve to demonstrate the importance God places on the physical and the material. Our theology is just so much more developed in this whole area.

The show includes near-death experiences. Are these helpful or not to our understanding of heaven?

Yes and no. The Church doesn't say definitively that all near-death experiences are phony. On the contrary, some of them might be very genuine. The point is, who knows which are real and which are counterfeit? Which are actually experiences of grace, and which are just delirious delusions? It's all too subjective. That's why I didn't include any in my book. I stuck to solid, biblically-based theology.

The best advice I can give is to be extremely cautious. If the near-death experience of a person doesn't conflict in any way with what the Church teaches, then there's no reason why it shouldn't be a source of comfort and consolation. I just wouldn't base my faith on it.

Why is thinking about heaven important to the spiritual life?

How are you going to hit your target if you don't have a bull's-eye to aim for? We need to think about heaven because that's our goal; that's our destination. If we don't constantly focus on it, we're just going to wander around and get lost. That's human nature. As they used to say in the civil rights movement, you've got to keep your eyes on the prize. By doing that, you'll never lose your perspective on what's important in life and what's trivial, and even more importantly, you'll always be motivated.

Motivation is key in the spiritual life. You know, the fear of hell and punishment only goes so far. We need the carrot as well as the stick. Father Frank Pavone used to preach in his homilies that if you meditated on heaven for five minutes every day, it would literally transform your life.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.