Saturday, May 28, 2016

Homily for the Sixth Day of Parish Novena 2016: "Praying for the Living and the Dead"

Preacher: Fr Simon Yong SJ

We continue with the series on the Spiritual Works of Mercy: Praying for the Living and the Dead. And I thought a better theme would read like Praying for the Dead and Killing the Living. At least that is how some priests might like it because it is not the dead who gives trouble but the living! Parishioners, I mean.

Let me focus more on praying for the dead and not so much for the living. This emphasis has nothing to do with just deserts as if those living do not deserve our prayers. In fact, praying for the living and the dead are two sides of the same spiritual coin that speaking of one, you will realise that the other is also implicated. Furthermore, tomorrow when we turn our attention to bearing wrongs patiently and forgiving offences willingly, I am sure praying for the living will enter our horizon.

Do we pray for the Dead as we should? Let explore this.

Have you watched series like Falling Skies and Walking Dead or movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and the trio of Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant? They all share a feature in common. They are set in some form of dystopian present or future. The word “dystopia” shares the same root with the word “Utopia”. Utopia, the term first coined by St Thomas More, describes a non-existent island with the most perfect legal, social and political system.[1] Dystopia is just the opposite, meaning “bad” place.

I conduct camps for young people. Repeatedly, when I try to connect one fact with another, they cannot make the connexions. In a way, the youths reflect a dystopian mind-set. What do I mean by that?

Have you noticed how convenient it is in a dystopian series or movie to discover a stockpile of reserved petrol to power up the cars? The question is how long will that supply last without upstream support. Where are the refineries? You might query where I am going with this? I observe the same disposition at work not just in the dystopian movies but in our everyday life. Do you know where your food comes from? Is the supply chain safe? Or, talk about water security and our response is to instal a water purifier in our own house. Talk about the soon to come haze and we want Indonesia to take care of her forest fires. But, do you think that the haze will respect sovereign boundaries?

What is my point in bringing this up?

The point is, we are not actors in a dystopian movie by any long shot but we are definitely dystopian in our outlook. A dystopian mind-set is restricted and definitely myopic[2] because it is incapable of grasping a bigger picture. Furthermore, there is a decidedly distinct temporal quality to this myopia meaning that this mind-set is time-sensitive or that it has a shelf-life or an expiry date to it. Put in another way, this short-sightedness is symptomatic of a crisis of faith. Is there an instant where this crisis is manifested?
Yes. Funerals.

In general priests who are trying to address this crisis may be fighting a losing battle. What am I describing here?

In general, when a person dies, nobody says bad things about the deceased. On the contrary, eulogies at funerals regularly give glowing accounts of the deceased and at times you might be left wondering if the funeral is at the same time a canonisation. It is bad taste to dishonour the deceased and it is natural for people to speak well of the dead. But, the need to eulogise might just reflect an obsession that everything that needs to be said and done must be accomplished here which makes the death not only an absolute end but also the end of our responsibility. Give the person a good send off and be done with it…

There is a duet by Mariah or Pariah Carey as I call her, with Boys II Men. Google it. One Sweet Day. It has been heard at funerals. The assumption is “a person who dies” will be in heaven. But, you ask yourself this question… if everyone who dies is guaranteed heaven, then why the need to punish rapists? After all, they will go to heaven, as One Sweet Day and our eulogies at funerals appear to indicate. But, the act of punishment has a function. It is to rehabilitate. It is to teach the person punished that there is another penalty far worse than this earthly sentence if he does not amend his life. In short, punishment on earth is a reminder of punishment in eternity—hell.

Praying for the hell reminds us that heaven is our homeland.
Contrast these two statements a priest makes with regard to marriage preparation.
1.      I am preparing a couple for marriage.
2.      I am preparing a couple for salvation.

Statement one is temporal in nature. It is time-based. And in our rat-race society, we scurry around looking for the best way to prepare a couple for the arduous duties of marriage. Commendable. And sometimes priests take the path of least resistance. Whenever couples ask for communion in a non-sacramental marriage, instead of explaining and being firm about why communion outside of Mass is only given to the sick and infirmed, some priests will take the easy way out by acceding to the request. Easy means we want to be “welcoming” and more understanding.

Statement two however, is not myopic and it takes a longer view of life which means often times some debates miss the point. Debates like whether or not eulogies be allowed. Can we give Holy Communion at Marriage services between a Catholic and Protestant?

All these best practices to prepare the couple or to ensure that the couple is welcome, sometimes, they miss the point because underlying every mission we have is salvation and the crisis of faith is the crisis of salvation. We are concerned about living well and some of us are also concerned about dying well. But, the purpose of living and dying is not just to live well and die well. The purpose of living and dying is for heaven and when we die, we die in the hope that death is not the end of existence but a doorway to our eternal life.

If this make sense, then you realise the importance of praying for the dead. There is a reality far bigger than the people here, or even larger than the sum total of all the baptised in every corner and nook of the world. That reality is the Communion of Saints and we are connected to the Saints in heaven, the Saints-in-waiting in purgatory and the faithful here on earth—Ecclesia triumphans, Ecclesia penitens and Ecclesia militans. The Catholic teaching on purgatory reflects her understanding of the Communion of Saints. We are one body with Christ the Head. Thus, for a Body to function all its parts must work together. As the names suggest, the saints pray for us and the souls in purgatory. The souls in purgatory cannot pray for themselves, they cannot do anything to hasten their entrance into heaven. They can pray for us but they depend on the saints and our prayers for them. And because our time for good ends with death, we ought to do as much good as we can whilst still alive.

In the meantime, Purgatory is necessary both as an act of mercy on God’s part as well as expression of justice on our part. How so? On the one hand, Purgatory is God’s final act of mercy towards a sinner because nothing unholy can enter His presence. A souls destined for the eternal joys of heaven needs to be purified before he can enjoy his just reward. On the other hand, praying for ALL souls in Purgatory is an expression of justice on our part. We do not know whose soul is in heaven or whose soul is still in purgatory. Unless the person is canonised a Saint, it would be presumptuous pride to assume that a loved one is in heaven and therefore an injustice to deny him or her our prayers because we think that he or she does not need it. Now you understand why a eulogy, which extols a deceased as if he or she were already a canonised saint, may just be audacious arrogance. The prohibition of eulogy has nothing to do with an unmerciful God who holds grudges and nothing to do with thinking lowly of the deceased because as mentioned earlier, purgatory is God’s final act of mercy towards the sinner.

Finally, praying for the dead is not a November event. Judging from our Mass intention books fattening around that time, one can safely conclude that many do think that the dead are remembered only in November. But, if you listen carefully, at every Mass we pray for the dead even though they may not be mentioned by name. Death separates the deceased from the living but there is a union which cannot be broken, not even by death. That is the union of the One Church of the Victorious, of the Suffering and of those still working out their Salvation—with Christ Jesus the Lord.

[1] Utopia just means too good to be true. That is why it is imaginary. Whereas eutopia positively describes a good place, (eu + topia). But because utopia and eutopia are homophonous, a conflation has taken place and this is because utopia (used with the meaning of eutopia) is contrasted with dystopia meaning bad place. In fact, the word dystopia reinforced the shift whereby utopia now has taken the meaning of eutopia. Utopia was St Thomas More’s satirical piece directed at a King, Henry VIII, who believed that he could create a perfect Kingdom which he accomplished by robbing the Church (Dissolution of the Monasteries) and rewarding the Aristocrats (who did not protest). The truth of this perfect Kingdom is that freedom had to be sacrificed. History repeated itself when Communism tried to create eutopia/utopia and the price paid was freedom. The same may be said today of the so-called “liberal” enterprise. The quest to liberate EVERYONE will surely end up with the exclusion of those who do not buy into the project.
[2] Do you know why conspiracy theories have high currency value? Our world-view is constricted but we intuitively know that there is a larger picture to which we have no access. Nature abhors a vacuum. When we do not have a big picture, conspiracy theories will abound.

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