Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time A
The Four Last Things
Part I: Death (& Purgatory)
The Lectionary gives us some rather rough readings for the clergy this Sunday, doesn’t it? The Apostle Paul sets out the ideal for Christian leaders: to share both the gospel—which is the very word of God—and even to share something of ourselves, building a true rapport of love with God’s people. But the prophet Malachi passes on a word of warning from the Lord to his priests: You have turned aside from the right way, and caused many others to falter; of your blessing I will make a curse. And then Jesus warns the crowds about the scribes and Pharisees—the religious authorities of their day: You should do as they say, but not as they do. They don't practice what they preach.
Rough words indeed! And, sadly, they still ring all-too-true today, as the scandals of the last few decades have made painfully clear. We should be troubled by the reprehensible things some priests have done. But we priests should also examine ourselves about some things we have failed to do—more specifically, some things we have failed to say. In the face of the surrounding culture, this is not an easy time to be a faithful, uncompromising Catholic. It’s no excuse, but it’s not an easy time to speak up and say what one ought as a faithful priest.
Now, this is probably when you figure: So he’s going to talk to us about abortion, or sexuality, or some other hot button issue. Relax. No…at least, not this Sunday.
One subject we priests have failed to preach and teach about in recent years is Purgatory. And I think that’s the case for two reasons: speaking about Purgatory requires us to consider two intertwined realities we’d rather forget: sin and death.
At a conference I attended last spring, a Catholic Hospice nurse gave a fine talk to a room full of priests. I remember distinctly how she said to us: Fathers, do not neglect your duty to the dying. It’s the most important thing you do as priests: you prepare people to meet God. She was right. And that’s really something we priests need to do for our people long before we’re praying at their deathbeds.
More than a month ago, Fr. Scott proposed that we do something to remedy the situation and give a series of homilies on “The Four Last Things”: death, heaven, hell, and judgment. Having just celebrated the feast of All Saints, the commemoration of All Souls, and at this Mass praying by name for the 140 individuals whose funerals and burials have taken place in this parish over the last 12 months, we begin today with a Catholic consideration of death—and along with it, some thoughts on Purgatory.
Any clergyman or funeral director can tell you: the way we mourn our dead in America has changed rather rapidly and dramatically in recent years. In fact, many people don’t even call them “funerals” anymore; instead, they plan “celebrations of life.” And—quite understandably—in search of some comfort, folks frequently say things like, “She's an angel now” (even though they didn’t exactly think of her in angelic terms while she was alive), and, “He’s in a better place” (which isn’t all that hard to imagine, given the hardship we endure in this world).
But is getting into heaven automatic—a guarantee—as we so often speak and act? That’s not what we read in the pages of the Bible. And it’s not what we find in the writings of the saints. It mustn’t be taken for granted—whether for ourselves, or for our departed loved ones. For you and me, that means we need to get our lives in order, to set our priorities straight, for a day of reckoning will come, and there’s no escaping it. For our dead, that means we need to do more than celebrate their lives, more than simply remember. We mustn’t stop at pulling out the old pictures and playing their favorite song. We need to pray for them—which is what our Catholic funeral rituals are all about. That’s what those who have passed away truly need from us. They may have been good people—maybe even really good people—but they were not perfect people. We will all, however, stand before a perfect God one day, and to him we must render an account—priests and parishioners alike.
The Church’s teaching on Purgatory has roots in the Old Testament (e.g. 2Maccabees 12:39-46) and the practices of the earliest Christians, who—even if they didn’t use the word—consistently prayed for their dead…and why pray for the dead if you don’t believe your prayers can have any effect? It’s best to think of Purgatory more as a process than a place: the process of purification to become as holy as necessary to enter the joy of heaven (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030). Purgatory is only possible for those who have died in God’s friendship—that is, in a state of grace, repentant of all mortal sin. It’s not a second chance, not an opportunity to start over, not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card; Purgatory’s a matter of taking care of unfinished business, of completing the soul’s deep cleaning that we have already begun before death.
Scripture tells us that nothing unclean will be able to enter God’s presence in heaven (Revelation 21:27). While it will be more or less intense, more or less uncomfortable, depending on the sort of life we’ve led, Purgatory is the definitive removal of any remaining impurities: sin, our attachment to it, and all of its lingering effects. The pains of Purgatory—often described in terms of fire—are not a temporary, lesser hell intended to torment us, but are the side effect of the thorough purging necessary to truly heal us. (Think of it like physical therapy: it only hurts because God has to push you hard enough to help you get better.)
When a loved one dies, we miss them. We can also feel quite helpless in the face of their passing, and wish there was something we could do. There is! Maintain your real and living connection with the faithful departed. Don’t fail to aid them at a time when they are unable to help themselves. It’s a good and pious custom to visit and care for the graves of the deceased—the places where their mortal remains await the Day of Resurrection. But we should also come to the assistance of their immortal souls, and we do that by our prayers, by gaining indulgences, by doing penances, by performing acts of charity, and—of supreme value—by offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Church’s doctrine of Purgatory might seem “old fashioned” to some—best left on a dusty old shelf and forgotten. But I think it’s actually one of the most consoling truths of our Catholic faith. I know all too well that I’m not who I want to be, who I ought to be, in order to live in God’s presence forever. Plain and simple: I’m a sinner. If I could get frequent flyer miles in the confessional, I’d be taking a lot of exotic vacations. Which is to say, if this life is my only hope—I’m pretty much sunk! But if I haven’t cut myself off completely from the Lord, if the work of my purification can carry on and be completed after I draw my last breath—that’s truly a great work of Divine Mercy. It’s a source of incredible hope.
Chris Stefanick is a husband, father of six, and one of the most powerful and popular Catholic speakers in our country today. Last Thursday—All Souls Day—he released a brief video on the Christian understanding of death that I’ve posted to the parish website. I couldn’t say it any better, so I’ll just repeat his words:
Death. It’s the final enemy of mankind. And even though it feels so unnatural and shocking, everybody has to experience it. And the billions of people on this planet will all be replaced by billions more in about a hundred years. Every single one of us has to die.
So how do you deal with that uncomfortable fact? You know, the Romans and the epicureans throughout history, they drowned that reality with their wine. Buddhists embrace that reality with the notion that we have to let go of our sense of self now—it’s just an illusion anyway. You know, atheists: they try not to think about it too much.
But Christianity—it’s the ultimate defiance to death. We believe in the Christmas invasion. We believe in a God who was born behind enemy lines and walked through the valley of the shadow of death with us. We believe in the Easter victory. We believe in life everlasting. You see, we Christians make peace with death because we can look it in the eye and say, “We win.”
We weren’t made for death. We were made for life, and death’s days are numbered. Sure, we still have that gut-level fear of death, which is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of being human. It’s OK. It keeps us from playing in traffic and running with scissors.
I mean, we still have to deal with the pain of death, which is very real. But a new light shines in the darkness. And all that pain, and fear, and sadness, and even anger: it’s forever changed by Easter Sunday. It’s forever changed by the faith that death isn’t a period; it’s a comma. It’s forever changed by the hope of reunion with all those faces we miss so much. And by the knowledge that we don’t face death alone: we have a God who is walking with us. And we have an army of loved ones who went before us who are cheering us on, right on the other side of that finish line.