Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls), November 2, 2014
Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls), November 2, 2014 Homily by Fr. John De Celles St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church Springfield, VA We come together today as the Church of Jesus Christ. At the same time we know that the gathering of the people we see here isn’t the entire Church. Still, we believe that in some mysterious way this and every Mass places us in a mystical communion with the whole Church: not only those present here, or even just those in other places throughout the world, but also the members of the Church already in glory –the saints in heaven– and the Church in purification–the souls in Purgatory. Today we remember in a special way All the Souls in Purgatory. This is confusing to a lot of Catholics. On the one hand, some fear Purgatory as a place of terrible torture and despair, like a prison. And on the other hand, others simply ignore or reject the teaching all together, thinking of it as the result of some early pagan superstition, or medieval preoccupation with sin and punishment. But Purgatory is none of these things. First of all it’s not the result of pagan superstition or medieval fears, but of Biblical faith. For example, the second book of the Maccabees tells us that Judas Maccabbees, 2 centuries before the birth of Jesus, prayed for the dead, [quote] “beseeching that the sin which [they] had been committed might be wholly blotted out.” And it goes on to tell us: “to pray for the dead…was a holy and pious [thing].” The thing is, if the souls of the dead who die in sin are in heaven, they have no need of prayers, and if they are in hell the prayers would be useless. And so this passage from 2nd Maccabees reflects the ancient Jewish belief in a third place, or state, or whatever you want to call it, where the dead who die in sin go from which they can still go from there to heaven —a place where prayers for them will make a difference. But Purgatory is not a terrible place of torture and despair. While St. Paul speaks of a cleansing fire, the Church has taught that the pain of purgatory can be understood in at least 3 ways. First, its like the pain associated with any change. When we die we have to change from being attached to the things of this world —we have to let go of our bad habits and sinfulness. And this kind of change is hard: like an athlete getting himself into shape, the practice and exercizing is painful; or like giving up some bad habit, smoking or overeating —this can be agonizing. The second way of understanding the pain of purgatory is as primarily the pain of loss, In purgatory the souls are so keenly aware that they are so close and yet still deprived from the perfect and complete happiness of heaven. Finally , there’s the pain of a perfect realization of every single sin that they committed in life —and the terrible pain that these sins have caused to God, and to their neighbor. On the other hand, these souls also experience intense spiritual joy. Like the athlete preparing for the contest, the practice itself, the self betterment, is a rewarding thing —the soul in purgatory experiences the joy of becoming more and more like God created him to be. But also, the joy is found in the fact that the souls are absolutely sure of their salvation –they know that they will soon live forever with God. So as St. Catherine of Genoa wrote: “I do not believe it would be possible to find any joy comparable to that of a soul in Purgatory, except the joy of the Blessed in Paradise. For every sight, however little, that can be gained of God exceeds every pain and every joy that man can conceive without it.” To understand Purgatory is difficult, but perhaps we can begin with a key phrase from St. John’s Book of Revelation that “[N]othing unclean will enter [heaven].” This text makes sense because God is the all-perfect one, so there can’t be even the slightest imperfection in heaven. Think about this. Let’s take 2 people–Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and a common ordinary sinner like, say, me. The spiritual differences between him and I are in many ways like the differences between day and night. He seems holy, so unattached to things of this world, to even the most venial and small sins. I on the other hand–although I hope I’m not the worst sinner in the world –am still very much attached to things, and I commit venial sins all the time: I’m impatient, lazy, prideful. If Pope Benedict were to die today he seems to me to be extremely ready to enter heaven: he indeed seems to have nothing unclean about him: like a bright lamp shining light of Christ in some of the darkest corners of the earth. But if I were to die today, there’s no way that I would even try to argue that I am as pure and clean in the eyes of God as he was: any shine about me is dulled and dimmed by my imperfections and sins. So it seems that even though I may never do anything seriously evil, even if I’m just a common venial sinner, according to St. John’s teaching I’m in big trouble if I die today, because he says: “[N]othing unclean will enter [heaven].” But on the other hand, Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: “I will not reject anyone who comes to me.” So if both of these two concepts are true, I’m not in big trouble, because somehow between death and heaven I can be transformed and become perfectly purified. As St. Paul says elsewhere, somehow I “will be saved, but only as through fire.” Purified like gold in a fire. The teaching on Purgatory then, is essentially a teaching reflecting the great mercy of God. Because God could simply say that anyone not perfectly living out his will and free from all inordinate attachments to the world cannot enter into heaven. So Pope Benedict perhaps could go, but many of us in this room would never have a chance. But that’s not God’s way: he is Our Father who loves us so much that, unless we cut ourselves off from him by an act of unrepented grave sin, he will bring us to his heavenly banquet. But like a loving Father he first washes us–purifies us— before we sit down with the family for the banquet. Some say that purgatory is irrelevant or unimportant to us. And some would say that a loving God would never make us go through all this. But the thing is, this is exactly what a loving God would do: he would extend his perfect love even to those who have loved him imperfectly. And so we come to see that purgatory is of great relevance and importance to us. First of all, it can be a tremendous source of hope and consolation. For example, I know people–and you probably do too— who can’t fathom how they could ever get to heaven given the terrible sins they know or think they’ve committed: the idea of purgatory makes sense to them, and gives them hope that God really can love them and that heaven is in their reach. Or think of the families who mourn their departed family members. So often–especially as they try to deal with the immediate grief that comes with death –they speak about the dead as if they were living saints who went straight to heaven. But when the grief of loss subsides often the reality overcomes them that their mother or father or spouse or child wasn’t really as perfect as the eulogies said. Or they realize that they themselves were somehow negligent in showing their love for them when they were alive –and guilt understandably overwhelms them. Purgatory is a perspective on God’s love that gives them hope. It makes it possible to understand that not only people like Pope Benedict can go to heaven, but that even a common sinner like you or me, or our moms and dads, brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters can also go to heaven. And it makes it possible to keep giving to them after they’ve gone, by giving our love by our constant prayers for them. And this is the greatest reason purgatory is relevant and important to each of us: they need our prayers! Because if the souls in Purgatory are our brothers and sisters we must love them enough to pray for them –to help them during their purification. How sad it is that so many Catholics hesitate to pray for their beloved dead. Some think it dishonors the dead to assume that they’re in Purgatory. And some think their loved one was too holy—they simply have to be in heaven. But if they were that holy then they would be the first to tell us to pray for them. My Mother died about 12 years ago. She was the holiest, best Catholic I ever knew. And so I really think she’s in Heaven, so I pray to her every day. But I also pray for her in case she’s in Purgatory, because she was so humble she used tell all the time, that if I didn’t pray for her when she was dead she’d come back and spank me. My worst fear is getting to Purgatory and finding her still waiting there because I didn’t pray for her —and her spanking me then. Or take St. Monica mother of the great St. Augustine, who told him on her death bed in the year 387: “Lay this body anywhere, let not the care for it trouble you at all. This only I ask, that you will remember me at the Lord’s altar, wherever you be.” Or as St. Theresa of Avila, the great mystic and doctor of the Church, told her followers on her death-bed 1200 years later: “don’t let them call me a saint when I’ve died —then they won’t pray for me!” If we love them, we must pray for the dead. That’s what we do for people we love—we prayed for them in life, we have to pray for them in death. Because prayer is an act of love —it is the greatest act of love we can do for someone, because it asks God who is all powerful to help them. Now, God doesn’t need our prayers—even for the living: he knows what every one needs before we asks, and he loves them even more that we do. The thing is, he wants us to pray for them because he wants us to love them, and show that love by our actions —our prayers; and to bring him into that love, to recognize his love and power, and that in the end all things depend on his love. And the greatest of prayers we can offer for them is the Mass. Because the Mass is simultaneously the actual re-presentation of the great prayer of Christ on his Cross, and the prayer of the Resurrected Christ at the right hand of the Father. And to this perfect prayer Christ unites and perfects the prayers of His Church. So at this Mass of All Souls Day —as at every Mass— let us join in the prayer of the whole Church of Christ –the pilgrim Church on earth, the glorified Church in heaven and the Church being purified in purgatory –as it becomes the perfect worship of God the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit, and the perfect prayer for both the living and the dead. And our prayers of intercession become prayers of thanksgiving as we rejoice in confidence that although “[N]othing unclean will enter [heaven],” the merciful Jesus also promises us that: “I will not reject anyone who comes to me.” Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, …and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God …rest in peace. Amen.