My uncle, John D. Lowry, was scheduled to receive an Academy Award for his work in digital film restoration on February 11, 2012.

He died on January 21, 2012.

As a kid, I was always impressed with my uncle, aunt, and cousins David and Julia. They were all extremely gracious – and bright. The entire family had an entrepreneurial streak. Back in the 80’s, my dad and Uncle John were partners in a couple tech firms, one an early incubator for my dad’s search technology.

In later years, Uncle John returned to his roots and spent many years building Lowry Digital, a firm that specialized in digital film restoration. His work in this area helped him to become acquainted with some of the greats in the industry, such as George Lucas, pictured above with Uncle John. My uncle’s projects included many of Hollywood’s best-known films and series: Star Wars, Citizen Kane, Mary Poppins, Indiana Jones, Singin’ in the Rain, various Disney classics, the list is incredible.

My eight year old son David (who was named partially as a result of my liking for my older cousin) is deeply in the debt of Mr. Lucas and Uncle John. David lives in a Star Wars world – come to my house and you’ll see how the talents of these two men make a kid happy. Now multiply that by a couple billion.

It was for his pioneering work in digital film cleanup that Uncle John was to receive the award on February 11.

We’re all in debt to individuals like Uncle John and George Lucas, who use their talents in ways that benefit so many people. I’m grateful to Uncle John for his use of these talents. In reflecting on his death, some of the principles contained in my newly released book, Faith at Work: Finding Purpose Beyond the Paycheck, can be traced back to my formative years when Dad and Uncle John were in business together.

Yet there’s one thing that has bothered me – I never knew Uncle John to be a man of faith.

As a kid bouncing around various Christian denominations, there would have been any number of perspectives on this – some might say he went to heaven, due to God’s infinite mercy. Others might have said he went to hell, since there was no visible acceptance of Jesus as Lord.

I see both extremes as being presumptuous – in some cases, even downright arrogant. In becoming Catholic, I learned that the Church never presumes that any individual has gone to hell. Now, don’t misunderstand, it’s possible to get there. Jesus speaks of the gate to hell being wide in Matthew chapter 7. But the Church hasn’t ever pronounced anyone as damned.

On the flip side, the Church does canonize people, after a process of spiritual “due diligence.” So we have the communion of saints, who act as role models for all (and do a better job of this than professional athletes or musicians).

So what do we do as Catholics when someone dies, and we don’t know much about their faith?

We hope, and pray.

The Catechism tells us:

The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament. The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257)

It’s the last sentence that is the key. Although we know that outside the Church there is no salvation, we recognize this is not a superficial, sound byte issue – there’s great depth here, and there are many misunderstandings about what this means. Again, from the Catechism:

How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 846-847)

Fr. Ray Ryland, our family friend and most gracious priest, expressed great affection for Uncle John after seeing his picture. Fr. Ray offered several Masses for Uncle John this past week, and expressed admiration at his use of his God-given talents.

Amen, Father! My dad told me years ago that he wanted to learn more about intercessory prayer, and hoped that there would be people in heaven who were surprised to be there. Our Lord tells a story in Matthew chapter 25 that appears to illustrate this point:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)

To my uncle, I was “the least of these” and he treated me graciously anyway. Thank you, Uncle John, for using your extraordinary talents in a way that will benefit so many people for years to come. Thank you for your even greater legacy, my wonderful cousins David and Julia. And thank you finally for something you never knew about, that happened many years ago.

Some of the wealth you created went, indirectly, to sending me, a rebellious sixteen year old Canadian kid, to a small Catholic college called Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio (that story is here). That led to my marriage to a beautiful American girl, and to our eight children. You see, we became Catholic as a result, as did your younger brother – the former Presbyterian minister. Now, as Catholics, we’ll pray for your soul.

We also hope to see you in heaven. That, I’m quite confident, beats even an Academy Award.