Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Purged by Love

Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed

Yesterday we remembered all the saints, both named and unnamed. Today, we remember those who have passed from this life with faith, hope and trust in the promise of eternal life. It is so much easier to just simply believe that those in the second category automatically fall into the first that is, all our departed loved ones are already in heaven and enjoying beatific vision. But that is something we can only hope for and can never be certain unless the Church definitively declares them saints, what we call canonisation.

At the root of today’s commemoration is the question: What happens to us when we die? If our belief is that death is the end, then it doesn’t make any difference: there is nothing more. This, of course, is not our belief as Catholics. We believe that the life of every individual matters to God. We believe that there is life-after-death; we believe in the Resurrection; we believe that when we die, the person we are lives on; the person does not die; and we believe that this person will live for all eternity, eventually with a resurrected body – just like our Lord Jesus Christ.

Many of us here are carrying the memory of a deceased spouse, parent, child, or best friend deep in our hearts. It is our wish, it is our desire, it is our hope, and for some, it is even our belief, that our loved ones are “in peace” in Heaven, as the Book of Wisdom so comfortingly assures us. But the truth is that we do not know this for a fact. Canonisation involves a long and stringent process of determining whether someone is in heaven or not. But very often, at the time of the death of a person, we can never come to that conclusion with absolute certainty. We should avoid a widespread heresy that is so prevalent today, that hell does not exist and presumes that basically everyone and anyone who dies somehow automatically gets upgraded to heaven no matter what life they lived here on earth. If this be the case than what we’re doing today at this Mass and what we do at every funeral would be basically a big waste of time.

So, what is the proper attitude we should have toward the salvation of those we know who have died? The first thing is that we shouldn’t judge them. With our finite capacities, we cannot know what’s really in another’s heart. We see appearances but only God sees the heart. In some cases, we extend funerals even to those who commit suicide because we don’t know what was in the person, that led to the decision. The only time we do refuse funeral is when the person made it absolutely clear that he was doing it for reasons contrary to the Catholic faith. On the other hand, we’re not to judge people to be saints in heaven either. A person might seem to be a great father or a loving mother, or a generous philanthropist, but we might not know of their dark hidden secrets or ulterior motives. For that reason, we, as Catholics, leave all the judging to God. And because we don’t know, we hope for their salvation and we pray for their salvation.

That is why praying for the dead is so important. When we say that we pray for the dead, we are ultimately saying that we believe in this reality called purgatory. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of misunderstanding concerning this doctrine. Some have thought that we “go” to purgatory and then, we are judged as to whether we go to heaven or hell. Others see this as a mini-hell for those who didn't quite make it all the way into heaven. If purgatory is a mini-hell, it explains why so many people choose to canonise the dead as if this was a quick “Get out of Jail” bonus card. 

So what is purgatory? To begin with, let's look at the word “purgatory” which comes from the old Latin word “purgare,” which means “to cleanse” or “to purge.” So you can think of purgatory as a time of cleansing or final purification in preparation to spend eternity in the presence of God. Citing Pope Gregory the Great, the Catholic Church teaches that “all who die in God’s grace, 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.” (CCC 1030)

The next question is why is purgatory necessary? Can’t we just get to heaven as we all hope to one day? Well, the Church teaches that to enter heaven, one must be completely attached to God and radically detached from all sin and everything that is not of God. “Nothing unclean shall enter heaven” (Rev. 21:27). There are many who do not live and die with that type of purity of life and hence they need to be purified to enter into the kingdom in which God is all in all. So what about people who say a fundamental “yes” to God, but drag their feet, clinging to some “small” sins, nursing some attachments to the evil that they’ve supposedly renounced?  Purgatory is the process after death where these attachments, the umbilical cord which binds people to the old world, are cut so that people can be free to enter into the life to come.  It is the hospital where the infection of sin is eliminated.  Purgatory is not a kind of temporary hell. Hell is eternal separation from God, but purgatory facilitates our eternal union with Him.

The next question which follows, did the Church just make this all up? Is this teaching about praying for the dead and purgatory unbiblical and just man-made? The answer is definitely no. The teaching on purgatory and praying for the dead finds its source in scriptures. The earliest Scriptural reference to prayers for the dead comes in the second book of Maccabees. Since Protestants reject the idea of praying for the dead, this book is not included in their canon (collection of books in the Bible). The second book of Maccabees tells how Judas Maccabee, the Jewish leader, led his troops into battle in 163 B.C. When the battle ended he directed that the bodies of those Jews who had died be buried. As soldiers prepared their slain comrades for burial, they discovered that each was wearing an amulet taken as booty from a pagan Temple, a violation of the Law. So Judas and his soldiers prayed that God would forgive their sins.

Second Maccabees tells us, very succinctly, “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins” (2 Macc 12:45). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC 1032). In God’s plan of salvation, our deeds of love offered in union with Christ’s own sacrifice may help others. Christ calls us to be co-redeemers with Him. Just as His passion, death and resurrection brought salvation to the whole human race, so our deeds of love united to His, by God’s own design, can help those who have gone before us. It is a spiritual work of mercy.

Let’s be honest. The vast majority of us will not go immediately to heaven after judgment because we’re not living as true saints in this world but are regularly making compromises with our faith. And because of this, the vast majority of people will need prayers after they die. We would need a lot of prayers. So we need to take these things seriously – our funeral liturgy is meant to worship God and beg His mercy for the dead and not an opportunity to glorify or canonise the dead. We need to start offering masses for the dead because there is no greater prayer, there is no greater sacrifice, than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which re-presents the Sacrifice of Our Lord on Calvary. It’s time to visit the graves of our loved ones, not just to remember them but to pray for them, not just once a year but as often as possible. As St Ambrose of Milan taught us, “We loved them in life, let us not forget them in death.” 

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