Thursday, October 30, 2014

Uncle Joe's in Heaven, right?

All Souls 2014

Every priest will have his own trove of anecdotes about funeral bloopers; some priests would recall the time when no one sitting in the pews (some presumably “Catholic”) seem to know what to do during a Catholic mass; many would remember the frequent number of times the funeral mass ends up becoming a mass of canonisation for the deceased (I knew this guy who didn’t mind that a funeral mass was denied to his uncle as long as he got the chance to deliver a eulogy he had rehearsed the previous night); still others often have to sit through a local Talentime show at the end of the mass as some niece or grandchild decides to give a violin rendition of “You Raise Me Up.” The icing that tops the cake is when the priest himself delivers a homily that assures the family that the deceased is doubtless in heaven since he was such a nice guy when he was alive. The discordant note that runs through all these experiences is the subtle absence of any mention about Purgatory.

Did we miss something? Well, I think that most families and funerals miss a step. Upon the death of a loved one there are often instant declarations that “they are in heaven” or “He is in a better place…” or “She’s gone home.” Of course such judgments are grossly presumptive and in making such declarations, people sit in the judgment seat that belongs only to Jesus. If I were to say, “Uncle Joe is in Hell” people would be rightly angry and say I was being “judgmental.” But of course those who say “Joe is in heaven” sit in the very same judgement seat and are also being “judgmental.” I guess, with Purgatory out of the way, we now think that God is such a nice guy that he just says, “Well, let’s let bygones be bygones. The bar is over here and the Jacuzzi is over there. Dinner is at seven. Enjoy!” In a sick sort of a way, such a perception condemns us - we are all doomed to be eternally entertained.

When hope that the deceased will enter into heavenly glory is conveyed as certainty, the funeral Mass becomes just another therapeutic moment of letting go rather than a Eucharistic offering to God, who does not wish us to let go but remain in communion with him and the deceased. After all, everyone who dies needs our prayers. Preaching instant sainthood thus comes with terrible consequences: it either sows unrealistic certainty or despair among survivors or it falsely assures us that no one really has “sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (cf. Rom 3:23). And if that is the case, what need is there for prayers for the dead, the grace of God, and the Church that offers it sacramentally?

There is one overpowering idea current in the “funeral industry” which has hijacked Catholic custom and teaching regarding funerals. It is that the funeral is for the living, therefore, their feelings and preferences matter most. You may be surprised to note that the Catholic funeral is not meant for this. Like any celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, the essential purpose of the funeral is the worship of God, the proclamation of the Gospel, and the celebration of the paschal mystery. Secondarily, the Mass is offered for the repose of the soul the deceased and should invite prayer for the judgment they face, and for their ultimate and happy repose after any necessary purification. The funeral is for the dead. Yes, there is the wake and this is for the living. We can have the toasts and the eulogies, and the pictures and the speeches, and even the songs, “Please Release Let me Go,” or the all time favourite, “You Raise Me Up” as we keep vigil at home or at the funeral parlour. But once at Church, we celebrate the mass for the dead. Not a celebration of life. It is time to pray for the dead. The sacred liturgy exists to glorify God, not man, to praise the Lord, not Uncle Joe.

The whole point of praying for the dead at all is purgatory! If the dead are in heaven they don’t need our prayers. Sadly, if they are in Hell, they can’t use them. It is those in purgatory that both need and can use our prayers. When Jesus says, “You must be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect,” (Mat 5:41) it is a promise, not a threat. And St. Paul reminds us that it is “God who has begun a good work in you (that will) bring it to completion.” (Phil 1:16). Most of us know, if we were to die today, that we are not perfect, and that God’s work in us is not complete. Purgatory therefore makes sense – it accords with the very nature of God who is both Just and Holy, and not one to the exclusion of the other.

I think that some people react negatively when purgatory is mentioned because they think that purgatory is a bad thing. The key to providing a corrective to this serious misconception is to see the beauty behind the doctrine of purgatory. In purgatory all remaining love of self is transformed into love of God.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “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.” (Catechism 1030)

We often speak of the pain of the fire of Purgatory; why do we do so? What is this fire, then, but the fire of love? This fire is the encounter with Christ Jesus himself, who is both Judge and Saviour, and this encounter with him is the moment of judgment. Pope Benedict explains this encounter with Jesus most powerfully: “Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms us and frees us, allowing us to become fully ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives becomes evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire.” … The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.”

As we ponder the beautiful understanding of purgatory, we must never forget the importance of praying for and having Masses offered for the repose of the souls of our loved ones. Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Mirae caritatis (1902) beautifully elaborated the connection between the communion of saints with the Mass: "The grace of mutual love among the living, strengthened and increased by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, flows, especially by virtue of the Sacrifice [of the Mass], to all who belong to the communion of saints. For the communion of saints is simply ... the mutual sharing of help, atonement, prayers, and benefits among the faithful, those already in the heavenly fatherland, those consigned to the purifying fire, and those still making their pilgrim way here on earth.”

And so while today’s liturgy is one of deep sadness as we mourn our beloved dead and pray for them, is also one of profound hope rooted in the love of God.  Let each of us, then, raise our prayers and offer our sufferings to the Father for the Souls in Purgatory. We know that our prayers on their behalf are beneficial to them because, no one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. We are all one in the Body of Christ. Therefore, let us keep ever in mind the words of St. Ambrose: “We have loved them in life; let us not forget them in death.”

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