Whenever someone we know and love dies it is a terrible loss. Whenever someone famous dies, especially if that person dies suddenly and tragically, the loss is felt by thousands and possibly millions of people. Thus it was when my wife Ann texted me at 3:42 p.m. on Sunday afternoon: Kobe Bryant died. One minute later: Helicopter crash.
There is a psychological phenomenon known as “basking in the reflective glory” that draws people into a “personal” relationship with famous people. It is easy to see this in action when people use the word “we” to describe events surrounding a team or when they get wrapped up in the personal lives of celebrities in the world of entertainment. As human beings, we are all desirous of friends and a community, and the isolation of a post-modern, technologically driven world makes us way too vulnerable to connections that exist only in our minds.
But when we strip all of that away, we are still left with the realization that another human being has died, and, in this case, nine other human beings have died. The headlines are for the famous, and maybe in the actual text of the news story it will be related that others were also on board, but headlines are fleeting. Amidst the calls to remember Kobe, as well as his daughter Gianna, we should not forget to pray for the repose of the other seven souls on that helicopter.
As a Catholic – and, as it seems, a practicing one at that – Kobe Bryant would know that. Every soul matters, and when each person stands before the judgment seat of God there are no free passes given to the rich and famous, and St. Peter has no desire to take a selfie with someone because he was deemed by many to be a (and why this term isn’t seen as an insult I will never know) GOAT.
There is only one Greatest of All Time, and He is the One whose sacrifice on the Cross brought salvation to the whole human race. Binding her or himself to that Cross makes someone a superstar in the eyes of God, and the heavenly Hall of Fame is filled by those who lived the Beatitudes and acted on behalf of the least of Jesus’ sisters and brothers.
Our Church teaches that on Sunday afternoon Kobe Bryant and the eight others who died with him faced their final judgment at the hands of a just and merciful God. Most people know nothing about the lives led by the other passengers of that helicopter, but because of his great fame people will find it easy to declare where they think Kobe Bryant resides today.
His fans, fueled by the media’s addiction to hyperbole, will be declaring him a secular, and maybe even a religious, saint. On the other side of the fence, there will be those who look to the 2003 allegations of rape, his admission of adultery, and his wife’s 2011 divorce filing as reasons for a different eternal home for the five time NBA champion.
Sober, Catholic reflection on this matter removes both of these options from the table, and instead must conclude that this is a matter that only God knows how to decide because only God knows the whole story and the real Kobe Bryant. What we do know is that Kobe and his wife Vanessa never abandoned their sacramental marriage and that Kobe and his daughter Gianna received our Lord in the Eucharist at Mass on Sunday.
As with all of our beloved dead, we are called to pray for their eternal souls. We hope that they died in the state of grace and that they are making their way through the purgatorial path to eternal beatitude in Heaven with God and the saints. We do no one any good service by canonizing them at their death or by condemning them to the eternal fires of Hell. Both of those conclusions remove any benefits that our prayers might bring to them on their path. Our prayers need to be the same kind of support for those in purgatory that the prayers of the saints in heaven are for us here on earth.
And for those like Kobe Bryant who are used to applause there can be no sound greater than the silence of two hands prayerfully clasped together in support of his making the cut and securing a spot, even if as a lowly benchwarmer, on the only team that really matters.