TEXT: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 12, 2023
The 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 12, 2023
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
When I was in the seminary, deacons who were in their last year of seminary
were required to preach at daily Mass.
One morning, one deacon gave perhaps the shortest homily in seminary history:
“Death…Are you ready?”
That was it.
“Death. Are you ready?”
A very uncomfortable thought.
But we have to think about it because, as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel,
“Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour!”
We have to think about death, but we have to think about it as it really is.
So, St. Paul tells us in today’s second reading,
“We do not want you to be unaware
about those who have fallen asleep,
so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”
In other words, as Christians we should have hope in the promise Jesus makes
in today’s Gospel that
“those who [are] ready” when He comes
will go “into the wedding feast with Him.”
The source of our hope in the face of death
is Jesus’ promise of heaven to those who love Him.
At the beginning of this month, on All Saints’ Day, we recalled this promise
as we remembered the dead who are already in heaven
and saw in them the fulfillment of the promise given to us.
But hope also requires an understanding
of the feast we celebrated on the day after that, All Souls Day,
when we remembered the promise of Purgatory.
Most people probably don’t think of Purgatory
as a “promise” or a source of hope like heaven is.
Some Christians today even go as far as
rejecting the whole concept of Purgatory
as a remnant of medieval superstition
or preoccupation with sin and punishment.
But the origins of this dogma are found right in Scripture itself.
For example, the second book of the Maccabees tells us that
two centuries before the birth of Jesus, Jewish soldiers prayed for the dead, “beseeching that the sin they had committed might be wholly blotted out.”
And it concludes,
“To pray for the dead…was a holy and pious [thing].”
Other people just can’t understand why Purgatory would exist in the first place
—they think if you’re good, when you die you go to heaven,
and if you’re bad you go to hell.
But perhaps we can begin to understand the “necessity” of Purgatory
if we recall a passage from the book of Revelation
where St. John’s tells us,
“[N]othing unclean will enter [heaven].”
So, let’s think about this.
Let’s take two people—say, a holy man like John Paul II
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 was so holy, so focused on Jesus,
and suffered so much for the last few years of his life;
he seemed absorbed in faith, hope, and love for Jesus
and detached from even the most venial and small sins.
When he died, he was extremely ready to enter heaven:
He indeed seemed to have nothing unclean about him.
Which is why he’s a canonized Saint now.
But if I were to die today,
there’s no way that I would even try to argue the same about myself.
I don’t claim to be the worst sinner in the world,
but am still very much attached to things, and I commit little sins all the time.
So, it would seem that I’m in big trouble if I die today
because according to St. John,
“[N]othing unclean will enter [heaven].”
But there’s good news: St. John also tells us elsewhere in scripture,
“There is sin which is deadly [mortal]…
but there is sin which is not deadly [mortal].”
In other words, some sins don’t cause us to lose eternal life!
But since nothing unclean can enter heaven,
somehow between my imperfect life on earth
and my entrance into the perfection of eternal life in heaven,
something must happen to transform me
and make me perfectly purified.
As St. Paul says elsewhere, somehow I’ll be purified “like gold in a fire.”
And Purgatory—the place of purgation, or purification—is that “somehow.”
The teaching on Purgatory, then, essentially reflects the great mercy of God
because God could simply say that anyone
not perfectly living out His will on earth cannot enter into heaven.
So, maybe Pope John Paul II, or Benedict XVI, or Mother Theresa
could go to heaven, but most of us 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 a willful act of serious sin,
a mortal sin, that we fail to repent,
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 who believe in Purgatory fear it as a place of terrible torture and despair.
There is pain in Purgatory. There is no doubt about that.
That is the constant teaching of the Church.
But there is nothing to be frightened of
if we understand what the Church teaches about the pain of Purgatory.
First, we can see it as 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 exercising are painful.
Or more common, it’s like trying to cure some deadly illness, like cancer:
The treatment can be terribly uncomfortable, even terribly painful.
But also, the pain of Purgatory is fundamentally the pain of deprivation.
In other words, in Purgatory the souls are so keenly aware
that they’re so close and yet still so far
from the perfect and complete happiness of heaven.
It’s like the person in today’s psalm who prays,
“O God, …for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.
Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary to see…your glory.”
Purgatory is painful, but both these understandings of pain
also show us how these souls also experience intense spiritual joy.
Like athletes preparing for the contest who find
that the exercise is making them stronger and faster,
making them more and more ready to win the contest.
Or like the cancer patient who rejoices that the painful treatment is working,
that they are being cured, that they are going to live!
In a similar way, the souls in Purgatory also experience joy
as they become more and more the perfect creatures
God created them to be,
as they are strengthened and cured from their sins, vices, and faults.
But most importantly, they experience the anticipation of the joy of heaven itself
because they are absolutely sure of their salvation.
You and I only hope to go to heaven,
but they know and have no doubt that they will be in heaven very soon.
Some say that nowadays Purgatory is irrelevant or unimportant to us.
But in reality, the opposite is true.
First of all, it can be a tremendous source of hope and consolation.
We all know people 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 real sense to them,
giving 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 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 immediate pain 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 they become overwhelmed by guilt.
Purgatory is a perspective on God’s love that gives them hope.
And it makes it possible to keep giving to our loved ones after they’ve gone
by giving our love through 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 enduring the cleansing fire are our brothers and sisters,
we must love them enough to pray for them,
to assist them during their painful purification:
When one member of the body of Christ suffers in any way,
we all suffer, and we must respond.
You loved your mother or sister or son or friend when they were with us on earth.
And I’m sure you prayed for them, especially if they were sick,
because you knew that you were so limited in how you could help them,
and the best you could do to help them was to ask Almighty God to help them.
Now that they’re dead, you still love them,
so you still have to pray for them, to help them in their suffering.
You might say, “Oh, no, Father. My parents are in heaven.”
That kind of thinking might make you feel good,
but if they’re in Purgatory, it doesn’t make them feel good.
In other words, that’s really a basically selfish way of thinking.
My mother was the most perfect person I ever knew, and I think she’s in heaven.
But I pray for her every day
because I dread the thought of her suffering in Purgatory
even one moment longer than necessary
simply because I was too selfish to simply pray for her,
to help her on her way to heaven.
If we love them, we can’t just forget about them; we have to pray for them.
This is why the Church dedicates this entire month of November
as a month for praying for the Poor Souls, the Holy Souls, in Purgatory.
Especially at Holy Mass and by offering Masses for them.
We do this because the Mass is the greatest prayer we could offer for the dead
since it’s simultaneously the sacrificial prayer of Christ on His Cross
and the prayer of the Resurrected and Ascended Christ
at the right hand of the Father.
And to this perfect prayer, Christ unites and perfects the prayers of each of us and His entire Church.
It’s very easy to be afraid of dying and to avoid thinking about it.
But for a Christian, death should not be the source of fear, but the object of hope
because we know that even as Jesus warns us that we must,
“Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour”
when death will come,
He also reminds us that in facing death, we have no reason to
“grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”
The promise of the perfect life of heaven is the source of our hope,
and the promise of Purgatory keeps that hope alive
in imperfect Christians like you and me.
V. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.
R. And let the perpetual light shine upon them.
May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God,
rest in peace. Amen.