Today is All Souls’ Day, a day recognized in the Catholic Church as one dedicated to prayer for our deceased loved ones. This is an important task that I think gets taken too lightly in our lofty, as-long-as-we-love God and are “good” people we just go to Heaven. The reality of death has somehow gotten watered down in our faith. Yes, God is all-loving and all-merciful and He truly wants all of us to be in Heaven with Him. However, the truth is, we are all sinners and imperfect, no matter how “good” we think we are. The danger in thinking that God is all loving and merciful doesn’t necessarily help sinners change their bad ways. And it certainly doesn’t help our departed loved ones who may be in Purgatory. They need our prayers! I know the idea of our loved ones being in Heaven comforts us as human beings and I hope that’s where they are, but we must not make assumptions. Realistically, most of us will go to purgatory first, to be completely purified, which is why we need to ardently pray for the departed souls.
Life is Not a Circle but a Road That Goes Somewhere
By long custom November is a month dedicated to prayer for the faithful departed and to reflection on the four last things: heaven, hell, death and judgment. Sometimes in the contemporary Church these themes are played down, as we yield to the temptation of a don’t-worry-be-happy mode of thinking about the faith.
But happy talk is not a very sound way of dealing with the ultimate questions of our existence. And that is in part the reason I have chosen the option of wearing black vestments today. That is one of the acceptable options, and it is a powerful symbol. The dark color reminds us that heaven, hell, death and judgment are serious matters. We will all face death and judgment, after all, and only by the grace of God can we look forward to heaven rather than eternal separation from God or the abyss of non-existence. This reality should not terrify us or reduce us to superstitious cowering. As Pope Benedict wrote in his splendid second encyclical, spe salvi: The image of the Last Judgment is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope.
How so? Because the Judge is the crucified one, who came to save sinners and to welcome the hearts that seek him to the Kingdom. Judgment is frightening from our point of view because we see our sins and failings. And we should. And we should confess them often – that is, if we take our eternal destiny seriously. We deal with the truth of the coming judgment by repentance, faith and good works, not by denial or evasion or trivializing the holiness of God.
Notice, by the way, that purgatory is not on the list of last things – for a very simple reason. It is not permanent. It describes the preparation most of us need before entering into the joy of our Master.
The doctrine itself is sparse and simple, as here in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (CCC, #1030)
I like to put it in these simple words: most of us die needing a little work. And I think we know it. Therefore the belief in purgatory and the practice of prayer for the dead, so central in this month, are joyous and liberating.
Most of us die in the midst of the consequences of our sins and shortcomings. The sin is forgiven, but the effects of our sin remains, the damage to our souls and to others needs to be repaired.
In that same encyclical Saved by Hope, Pope Benedict uses a potent example to make this point: “Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened. Something must be changed; purgatory is what makes the change.” (SpeSalvi, #44)
That at the most stark is what purgatory is about.
But again there is a tendency in our day to forget that. And this has led to distortion in our funeral practice. The notion of the funeral as the “celebration of the life” of the departed misses the point that at a funeral we celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We remember the deceased and pray for the deceased, but our hope lies in Christ nor in our memories. Then there is the problem of eulogies that too often sound like canonization proclamations. But the truth is that most of us are not saints, that God’s grace has not accomplished all it can or should in our lives. We pray for the faithful departed in the honest recognition that all believers are not saints and that most of us die unprepared to enter directly into heaven. November is a good time for us to remember this important truth. All Souls Day is a golden opportunity to deepen our formation in this truth of the faith.
It also helps us to deal with the painful range of emotions we experience when we face the death of those who have gone before us – loss, grief, regret, pain over broken relationships, or peace knowing they have been relieved of a long battle with illness or completed a life well lived. The brokenness of human life remains.
One theologian I know has commented – and I think he is quite serious – that the first moments after the resurrection are likely to involve acute embarrassment, as we encounter those whom we have wronged and who have wronged us. But the doctrine of purgatory helps us to understand how God goes about repairing the damage we do.
It is never our job to “assign” those who have gone before us a place in heaven, hell or purgatory – which is why eulogies at funerals can be so dangerous, often presuming to know what only God can know. We do not see the whole story, no matter how well we knew the departed, and judgment remains God’s job. Ours is to continue to journey with our beloved dead as we did in life – we can continue to pray for the eternal rest of their souls and ask them to pray for us.
Finally, reflection on the four last things helps us to shape our own pilgrimage. It reminds us that we are on a pilgrimage; we are not there yet.
Our baptism enables us to rise each day to newness of life, to pursue sanctity, to embrace the truth, and to do those good works that should arise from our faith and hope.
We are not made for this world and this life only. We are destined for eternal communion with God. The journey will be long. We will sin, falter and suffer along the way. But nothing is in vain; all is for our good; and all the trials and burdens of our journey contribute to our purification. So also do the joys, victories, achievements and satisfactions of this life. They are a prelude to, and intimation of, the joys of salvation.
In fact this month with its focus on death fills us with hope and renewed appreciation for the beauty of life. “The souls of the just are in the hand of God.” God who called us into being calls us forward to know and love him forever. Thus even death reminds us of the gift of life, for the dead live in and before God.
The days are growing darker of course. The leaves are falling and nature’s sleep reminds us that we too will fall like the leaves. But the similarity stops there, for we are not destined for recycling. Life is not a circle but a road that goes somewhere. Life in this world, purgatory and the judgment are components of a journey that leads to the face of God.
The business of life is gravely serious because God has assigned us infinite value and our actions count. It is all the more serious because its ultimate purpose and destination is eternal joy.