After Death What Next? Lessons from Fr. Benedict Ssetuuma Jr.’s Tension at the Gate of Heaven
By Fr. Joseph Lugalambi
Fr. Benedict Ssetuuma’s Tension at the Gate of Heaven brings to mind Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Dante spent ten years writing The Divine Comedy and died in 1321, one year after its publication. Dante’s The Divine Comedy is a memento mori poem, a reminder of death, inviting its readers to contemplate on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Dante’s Comedy reveals that he was schooled in a good theological and philosophical tradition.
Fr. Benedict Ssetuuma Jr. was a theologian-cum poet of his own kind. His Tension at the Gate of Heaven stands next to Dante’s The Divine Comedy. As his former professor and research supervisor, Prof. Francis Anekwe Oborji has eulogized him, Ssetuuma was “one of the rare geniuses, a hero, a star” in the 21st century. “He spent his time, night and day, reading and reflecting on the Word of God in the Scriptures, in the Church Fathers, in the Magisterium of the Church, in the works of great and holy theologians of all times; in African wisdom, philosophy and thought, and in the ancient and modern sciences and human studies (humanities), and developments.” Fr. Ssettuuma answered the call of the Second Vatican Council Fathers to make Scripture the center of every theological discipline. Ssetuuma never divorced scriptures from real life.
In his writings, Fr. Ssetuuma immensely reflected on the mystery of life, death, and the life after death. His most famous works on this subject are: The Thief on the Plane, in which he reflects on the life and death of his uncle and mentor, Fr. Professor John Mary Waliggo. The latter died abruptly on the plane on his way back to Uganda. Hardly did Fr. Ssetuuma know that he would meet the same thief in the garage on the morning of June 19, 2021! Another important work on the Four Last Things, which this author takes to be Fr Ssetuuma’s opus magnum, is his Tension at the Gate of Heaven. In this work, as the title suggests, Ssetuuma dramatizes the real tension at the gate of heaven.
In what follows, we reflect on the life after death while drawing from the fourth chapter in the 4th edition of Ssetuuma’s Tension at the Gate of Heaven.
The main characters in this chapter are: Ssajjalyabeene- a hardworking college professor who was falsely accused of various misconducts and was unjustly dismissed from his professorial job. Mimwetoloba is another priest who slandered Ssajjalyabeene. Last but not least, is Bishop Batakankwenge, the Commissioner of Education, who was omnia omnibus, all things all people.
Ssetuuma’s chapter 4 can be summarized as follows: Ssajjalyabeene, “who had a been a priest for about 27 years,” was a college professor who worked tirelessly for the well-being of the members of the College. His work as a priest and teacher was informed by St. Benedict’s principle: Ora et Labora, pray and work. Ssajjalyabeene was a true son of divine providence. Having experienced the misfortunes of this life, Ssajjalyabeene worked tirelessly to help the poor and the underprivileged. He was always extremely busy because of the many assignments given to him at the College. Despite being busy and on most days “keeping awake until 4am” in order to accomplish some writing projects, Ssajjalyabeene never missed any College activity. However, Ssetuuma notes, Ssajjalyabeene sometimes arrived late for classes. Though often “sickly and feeble,” Ssajjalyabeene never complained; for he understood the words of St. Paul very well that he should go on working quietly laboring for his own salvation and for the salvation of others (cf. 1 Thess. 4:10-12).
Mimwetoloba- another priest, was a well-trained “master of deception and trickery,” a “lethal silent killer.” Although Mimwetoloba was ontologically a sacerdos–a giver of holy things, his actions however, showed that he was more of a venenumdos-a giver of poison. He intentionally looked for the wrongs in others. He was, so to say, a helicopter priest. Mimwetoloba wrote an anonymous letter to the Principal of the College accusing Ssajjalyabeene of “prayerlessness, lateness, driving out and coming back late at night, strange relations with outsiders, of not believing in the discipline of celibacy, defending priests who have messed up in their ministry, [h]aving sired children (the many orphans he took care of) and of not having sound doctrine and of incredulity in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” The Principal of the College, after thorough research about the contents of the letter, concluded that the accusations against Ssajjalyabeene were baseless. As if this was not enough, Mimwetoloba had sent the same venomous letter to the retired “good Old Commissioner” of education. The latter, Ssetuuma narrates, had treated the letter as anonymous. The retired Commissioner was a man of deep prudence and discernment.
Bishop Batakankwenge, upon succeeding the throne of the Commissioner of Education, without any due research and inquiry from the old guard, resurrected the issues of the anonymous letter. This culminated into the sacking of Fr. Ssajjalyabeene from the College. Ssajjalyabeene was “shaken to the foundations. He felt used and humiliated as he left the College without any token of gratitude.”
The moment of Truth: Tension at the Gate of Heaven
On the night of December 24, Ssajjalyabeene, through a sweet dream, found himself in the company of angels singing Gloria in Exclesis Deo. It was the Day of Judgment. St. Francis was in charge of the gate of heaven. The Blessed Virgin Mary was nearby too.
Mimwetoloba, after a terrible accident, also appeared at the heavenly gate. Bishop Batakankwenge was at the gate too, waiting in fear and trembling.
Upon seeing Ssajjalyabeene in the company of St. Francis and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mimwetoloba was so terrified. All his slander, detraction, tale-bearing, dishing, backbiting, and calumny against Ssajjalyabeene were right there in his face. Crystal clear! What Christ and the fathers of the Church taught became vivid to Mimwetoloba: On that day, every good and evil deeds will be clear as the sun. It was the moment of truth for Mimwetoloba. It was a point of no return. As the Blessed Mother took away Ssajjalyabeene, she said to St. Francis: “Eee Francis, let me take away my son whom this boy Mimwetoloba made a martyr by his fiery and destructive tongue. Francis, deal with Mimwetoloba yourself, you know how.” Mimwetoloba’s pleas to St. Francis that he was “just a talker,” that he didn’t know that his “tongue would cause such much harm” did not produce any good. He was already destined for doom. Such was the price for Mimwetoloba’s terrorism of the tongue. Ssetuuma observes that St. James (cf. James 3:1-18), St. Augustine, and many spiritual and secular writers had warned Mimwetoloba and us about the terrorism of the tongue. Mimwetoloba paid the price for his negligence and calumny!
Bishop Batakankwenge, after listening to Mimwetoloba’s verdict, was dying inside. “His tremor spread to the limbs, his legs gave away and he collapsed like a sack.” Upon seeing Festum (the pagan Roman ruler) and emperor Trajan come toward him, Batakankwenge knew that his hour had come–his spot in the fires of hell was ready. He realized that “his love of power, influence, money, fame,” his “habitual sin of suspicion” and imprudence in discerning the contents of the anonymous letter against Ssajjalyabeene had led him into big trouble. Unfortunately, there was no time for Bishop Batakankwenge to make up his mess. The time of grace had already passed. Francis expelled him from his presence and ordered him Mimwetoloba in the place where there is “weeping and grinding of teeth” (cf. Matt. 13:42; Luke 13:28).
As the two tormentors of Ssajjalyabeene were taken to the place indicated by St. Francis, Ssajjalyabeene on the other hand, went to the place where the Blessed, as St. John teaches, see God as he is, (cf. 1 John 3:2). He joined the company of saints to sing Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. His resurrected “feeble and sickly” body reflected the glory of God. Sickness and feebleness no longer had dominion over him. He reflected the splendor of God through his body. Ssajjalyabeene participated in the inter-Trinitarian life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Such is the reward for those who love and serve the Lord.
Fr. Ssetuuma’s Tension at the Gate of Heaven reminds us that God is both merciful and just. His mercy does not negate his justice. God, as the Blessed Mother Mary sung in the Magnificat, “lifts up the lowly and casts down might from their thrones.” Ssetuuma reminds us that since Christ has redeemed us and made us sons and daughters of God (cf. Eph. 1:5), it is up to us to cooperate with Christ’s grace of redemption or to ignore it. Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection opened for us the gates of heaven. God desires us to be saved. But His salvation requires our “Yes”–– a “Yes” that is manifested in our metanoia, our conversion of heart.
May God welcome Fr. Benedict Ssetuuma into the company of Ssajjalyabeene and all the heavenly saints, amen!
Fr Lugalambi is a priest of Masaka Catholic Diocese