"Everything the Father gives me will come to me."
The Word for All Souls: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/110214.cfm
Can you imagine an existence, as real as this life, yet outside of space and time? Sounds like science fiction? Yet, falling on a Sunday this year we as Christians acknowledge our fundamental belief in this reality, a “place” a spiritual yet very real existence outside of what we have always known and measured since the time of our birth. On this day, and in this entire month of November, we pray for all of our dearly departed brothers and sisters who continue life in that existence which is our ultimate destiny as well. Yet, all the more real as we prepare to enter the glorious presence of God, the holy ones, and our faithful departed who have arrived.
As it always comes the day after the Solemnity of All Saints, it’s good for us to remember that we “pray to” our holy ones, those whose lives have been formally acknowledged by the Church as marked by heroic Christian virtue. They cheer us on, they run the race of life with us for they too once joined us in that race here and through God’s abundant grace have won the prize of eternity. They are our heroes and models of Christian discipleship from every race, language, and culture. The saints are here for us as intercessors and models of Christian living.
But All Souls Day is a very special day to “pray for” our deceased brothers and sisters, our family members who once joined us at meals, at home, in the garden, at sports events, at musical concerts, in school, on vacations. Who shared with us this personal life through laughter and sadness; in food and fun; in marriage and parenting; in ministry and service. Those we called Mom and Dad, brother and sister, Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt, Uncle, friend, neighbor, Reverend. In other words, all those who have died before us and shared in some part of our personal lives.
Why do we pray for the dead? That’s a question that many in the non-Catholic Christian world ask. Yet, this ancient Christian tradition that is preserved by our Catholic faith remains a center mark of our spiritual lives.
In speaking of funerals, our Protestant brethren and secular society in general often speak of a celebration of life. So, the tendency is to look back at a life well lived and consider all the various accomplishments and lessons and memories of the loved one who has died. Sometimes that celebration takes on an extravagant personality. Remember Michael Jackson’s celebration of life? Hollywood and recording artists were out in their glory. Yet, there is a deeper meaning.
The Catholic perspective in our funeral liturgies is to look forward to that life yet to come and that “place” outside of space and time in eternity and before God himself where our loved ones we pray will find themselves. We certainly look back at their life and recall all the wonderful memories but the emphasis is now upon Christian hope.
One of the opening prayers for this Sunday’s Mass of commemoration states:
Listen kindly to our prayers, O Lord,
and, as our faith in your Son,
raised from the dead, is deepened,
so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants
also find new strength.
It is that great promise of Jesus as that “faith in your Son, raised from the dead is deepened . . .” we have solid hope that “our departed servants,” which one day will include us, may also experience this new life in Christ. Death is not the end for life is changed not ended. In fact, another prayer for the deceased speaks of “those who have fallen asleep” because death is a passage not a brick wall we run in to.
Yet another central reason we pray for the dead: Purgatory. Yes, it’s still on the books and it is still part of our belief. Perhaps we have gone through a kind of evolution of understanding exactly what purgatory means. The church does not see purgatory as a kind of mini- hell but rather a logical outcome of our lives here on earth. Our Catholic Catechism states: “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.” (CC 1030-31).
We believe our prayers have a benefit for the dead for we trust in God’s extended mercy beyond this life which is expressed in that place of purification – that purgatory. We are cleansed, prepared, made perfect in order to enter eternal bliss and the presence of almighty God. It was once explained as a place we go to wash our baptismal garments. We must get ready to enter the presence of the King and prepare ourselves to meet his majesty. Perhaps the suffering of purgatory is to know ones final destination but to not yet be there. The hope is to know that our final home will indeed be Heaven.
Does everyone who dies go to purgatory? That we simply don’t know. It would be hard to imagine that St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa of Calcutta or St. Teresa of Liseux and other great saints like them needed to do so but it remains a mystery of our faith – not one of despair but of gratitude that God’s abundant mercy is still extended beyond this life.
So, let us pray for all of our departed brothers and sisters in the Lord. The Church in heaven (triumphant) is cheering us on. The church suffering (those in purgatory) long for our intercession and prayer. The church here on earth (militant) still engaged in the spiritual and mortal struggle of daily Christian living is filled with hope.
God’s mercy invites us all to share in his banquet which begins in every celebration of the Eucharist.