Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Hopeful Watching - Homily for the First Sunday in Advent (B)

Be watchful! Be alert!

In the Gerber house, we have six nieces and nephews ranging in age from two months to ten years old. And during Thanksgiving, they were all running around as kids do. And we were at my aunt’s house where there are many breakable things. Thankfully, everyone and every thing survived—but not without several warnings of “watch out!” and “don’t run!”

But why were there warnings? Because there was danger.

We often don’t equate Advent and danger, but this is how Advent begins: with a warning to watch out and to be alert.

The question is, why? What’s the danger?

In a word: that we might miss Christmas.

Life Moves Pretty Fast...

This sounds impossible, especially since Christmas music is already on the radio and Christmas decorations have been on sale since July. I mean, how could we miss Christmas? There are so many Christmassy things going on: like putting up the tree and setting up for parties and wrapping presents and worrying about how we’re going to pay for all of this and having the in-laws over and then having to get that last-minute gift and having to drive to the mall and trying to find a parking spot and then walking through said crowded mall with that weird perfume mall smell while over the speakers we hear the Beatles playing “So this is Christmas,” which reminds us that we need to go to Mass; so we get cleaned up and dressed up and bundled up and we load the gifts and the kids into the car (which is totally the easiest thing to do, especially when one of the kids has misplaced Elsa or Ana or Olaf or whoever) and we head to the very-relaxing, totally no-stress-at-all-4pm-Grand-Central-Station-Christmas-Eve Mass where everybody is happy to give you a seat and where you’re happy to stay until the very end of Mass because you have nothing else to do that night because it’s Christmas and nobody misses Christmas.

Be watchful. Be alert.

Ferris Bueller, that wise sage, once put it this way: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Thanks, Ferris.

But he’s right. It is so easy to miss Christmas (and that’s so strange to say!). But it’s true. At the very first Christmas, on the hills overlooking Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching over their flocks—and in the village inn, there were people eating, drinking, and sleeping.

One of those groups misses Christmas. Why?

Because the people at the inn weren’t watching. They were totally busy and totally content and totally not in need of a savior. So, when Jesus knocked and the doors remained locked, Christmas came and went and life went on just as usual—but with more bills to pay. It would be like having two months of Christmas music on the radio and then, when Christmas comes, the radio stations turn off the Christmas music!

But it’s Christmas! How can we possibly return (and so quickly) to our past life! How can we be so worked up about our preparations for Christmas and yet have it mean so little? Unless… we’ve missed Christmas.

Advent at Christmas

Perhaps the Church stops singing the Gloria during Advent to alert us and to remind us that there was a time when the world had no reason to sing glorias: that there was a time when heaven was not open, when our hearts were irreconcilably hard, when there was no reason to watch—or to hope.

This gets to the heart of why Jesus tells us to watch. Not only that we might be vigilant so that we don’t miss his coming, but also that we might be hopeful for his arrival.

Hopefulness is an eagerness that longingly expects something good, even from the most unexpected of places.

The people at the inns missed Christmas not only because they were not vigilant, but also because they had lost hopefulness. In their worldly pursuits, they couldn’t see how something so small and so unexpected as a pregnant Mary and a poor Joseph could mean anything—much less, change their lives and bring a heavenly Christmas. And so the people at the inns shut the doors, not only to the inn, but to their hearts, politely telling Jesus to go somewhere else because there’s no room here. And closing the door, they return to their profoundly busy lives. And that is tragic, because the people missed the gifts that come with Christmas.

Advent at Holy Mass 

But, really, I’m not just talking about Christmas. I’m also talking about the Eucharist. At Holy Mass, a hopeful Catholic approaches the Eucharist with a deep expectation the he will receive a taste of that great Christmas joy precisely because he is receiving the same Jesus that is the cause of our joy at Christmas. And so, the hopeful Catholic will go through a mini Advent before every Holy Mass. Having arrived to Mass early, the Catholic will quietly prepare his soul for the coming of Christ through prayer and hopeful watching. Then, like the shepherds, having heard and sung with the angels in the Gloria at the beginning of Mass, he travels to Bethlehem with great hope and discovers the tiny baby in the manger: the small and humble Eucharist. There, the Catholic soul opens the doors to the inn of his heart and invites Jesus and His mother to dwell there. Because, for the hopeful soul, with every Eucharist, Christmas has come! And there are gifts to be had!

If only we would watch. If only we would be alert.

This requires vigilance—that kind of watchfulness which is on guard against a creeping hopelessness and subsequent busy-ness that tempts us to arrive late and to check-out early.

Advent and Heaven

Because this isn’t just about the Mass and preparation for Mass or about Christmas and our preparations for Christmas. It’s about heaven. Advent is about Jesus’ coming and being ready for Him. So, how we prepare for Mass is how we prepare for Christmas is how we prepare for heaven. And if we don’t stop, we could miss Him. The doors up there will be like the doors in here *point to heart*.

So, to prepare you for the Eucharist and for Christmas, I want to sing to you a song about heaven. You know it because it is a Christmas song, but it isn’t just about Christmas. It is about heaven and the Eucharist and about the joy and triumph of the saints who have been vigilant in keeping the doors of their hearts open and who have triumphed over the busy-ness of this life.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, born the king of angels.
O come let us adore Him. O come let us adore Him.
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ferguson - Homily for the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Please note: I am posting this on Sunday, November 23rd. A decision has yet to be made by the grand jury. Also, my audience in this homily includes many who once lived in Ferguson and other areas of north St. Louis.

A few weeks ago, Archbishop Carlson wrote a pastoral letter to all in the Archdiocese and he exhorted pastors to make the letter known either through the bulletin or by having it read aloud during the homily. At all of the weekend Masses here at St. Joe’s, we will be hearing the Archbishop’s letter. At the end of his letter, I will provide a few comments in light of today’s Solemnity of Christ the King.

The Archbishop’s letter is found here:

My comments that were said after the letter are written below:

I’m a young pup. I know that many of you have dealt with issues like this for some time and, because of that, you know a lot more from experience than I do. I’ve had many conversations with many of you about Ferguson, conversations where I am mostly listening. I’ve heard a lot of anger, sadness, fear, questions of why, a little apathy, and a growing fatigue: we’re all tired of being held hostage to the evil and the fear and anger that comes with it. I’ve felt many of the same things.

For my part, I am baffled by the near-total rejection of law: not only with regard to the lawlessness of the rioters who have already gathered here, but also because of the great suspicion that people have regarding the grand jury. Why has there been a rejection of the legal process itself?

Many reduce the issue to race and racism. I am sure there are many elements there, but that reduction is too easy and doesn’t explain many other issues at work here. Certainly, there are many socio-economic issues. But even then there are causes underlying those issues.

One of the issues, in my opinion, is the oversight regarding matters of fact and truth. So much has been reported about the reaction—but so little has been reported about the facts of the case and the facts of the community. Totally overlooked has been the fact that there are people in the community who thought that Michael Brown was a bully. Totally overlooked has been the fact that many first responders and their families have had to literally go into hiding. A little has been said about how businesses have been hurting there. But less has been said that there are many people in Ferguson—white and black alike—who are besides themselves, infuriated at what is going on. There are more, many more, people who are peaceful than people who are rioting.

When I started to think about how many facts and how much truth has been overlooked, I started to wonder. My wonder grew when I started to see a dramatic uptick in my confessional of people who were battling with temptations to anger, revenge, racism, fear, anxiety, doubt, and despair. I began to wonder whether larger powers were at work. Then, this week, I hear how the Occupy Movement and also the New Black Panthers and, just yesterday, the Communist Party, have all descended upon St. Louis. It is as though the powers of darkness are descending upon the city.

This is no longer about a man being shot in Ferguson.

This is about a proliferation of sin that is diabolical to its core. We’re dealing with pure, unadulterated sin—and I am convinced that the devil is behind it, manipulating the opportunity so as to destroy and enslave as much and as many as he can.

On this Solemnity of Christ the King, I beg Jesus to reign as king in our city and in our hearts. For our part, I know many of us are wondering what we can do. On one hand, we are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. But I realize today that there is a deeper spiritual element to this. How many are hungry and thirsty for Jesus? How many are naked to the winds of evil? How many are imprisoned and sick by the slavery of sin? We don’t just need physical remedies—we need spiritual ones.

We hear about how there will be a separation between those who are good and those who are evil, a separation that shows who have lived as citizens of God’s kingdom and those who have lived as citizens of the devil’s. We hear how this will take place at the end of time.

But, brothers and sisters, the reality is: that separation begins to happen now. We show now whether we are a citizen of heaven or of hell. Yes, you can be angry because of what is going on—that kind of righteous anger. Yes, you can also be sad to see the old neighborhood being destroyed. You can be sad, you can be angry—BUT DO NOT SIN.

If you are angry, then turn to prayer. Do we not think that God is not angry over evil? His anger is held back for now and we live in an age of mercy. So we must do the same. See your brother as a captive of sin. Offer your anger as a sacrifice of prayer to free our brothers from their sins. Have your anger turn into zeal for God’s kingdom. You can be angry, but do not sin.

So let us pray. Let us pray for Jesus to reign in our city and in our hearts. Let us ask Him to be that shepherd who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, where, by his side, I fear no evil. Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. Lord, be our king! Reign in our world and in our hearts, Jesus!

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Parable of the Talents - Notes for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

This morning, we hear of a man about to go on a journey who calls together his servants and, to varying degrees, entrusts his possessions to them. Then he leaves. But “after a long time,” the man returns and sees what the servants have done. We hear how two of them do well with the master’s things and so receive greater responsibilities; but we hear of how one simply buried what he had been given. This servant is thrown outside where there is “wailing and grinding of teeth.”

Typically, this parable is used as an exhortation to use the talents God has given you. Use what you have been given or else face punishment.

The problem—as with pretty much any of Jesus’ parables—is that there is more to this parable than just this moral exhortation. And even this moral exhortation, as I just articulated it, is incomplete. It is based on things antecedent to it and which deepen it.

So, for example: what is a talent? In the reading, it says “The man gave… talents… to each [servant] according to his ability.” But if talents are simply abilities, then why are they given according to one’s ability? That doesn’t make sense.

So, again, what is a talent? Quite literally, a “talent” in Jesus’ day was a large sum of money—the equivalent of anywhere between three and sixteen years of wages. So, even the man with one talent is given quite a sum of money. And how much more so can be said of the servant who was given five talents (that’s as much as 80 years of wages)! This is the starting point of our understanding of the parable: the man has given his servants an extraordinarily large sum of money—more than the servants could ever make in their own lifetime.

At this point, we may ask: who is this man?

The Man in the Parable

We hear that this is a man who is “going on a journey.” Later, we hear that he returns “after a long time.” Is he a world traveler? Is he a king? And where is he going? And why does he return after a long time—and not a short one?

Here, it does well to remember another of Jesus’ parables. In this case, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. That parable is the key which unlocks this Parable of the Talents. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Good Samaritan is the one who helped a man who had been robbed. The Good Samaritan cares for him, takes him to an inn, pays the innkeeper a sum of money to care for the man, and then says to the steward there: “upon my return, I will repay you.”

That’s odd, because the Good Samaritan seems to be going on a journey too and, also, will be returning to repay this servant. The plot thickens…. Maybe they are the same person?

In the case of the Good Samaritan, the identity of the protagonist is often seen as us: we are to help those who are less fortunate. But what if it's not about us? What if the parable is firstly about Jesus? Read in that spirit, the Parable of the Good Samaritan makes even more sense: Jesus is the Good Samaritan who helps humanity after it had fallen victim to the robbers (the devil and his minions) and who heals us by the Sacraments (oil, wine, binding), and by the care of His Church (the inn)—which he will visit and reward accordingly upon his return at the end of time.

The same can be said of the man with the talents: it is Jesus: he who goes on a journey (Ascension into heaven) and will return after a long time (The Second Coming) and will repay his servants (us) at the end of time (The Last Judgment)—which, wonderfully enough, is exactly what he talks about in the following verses of the same passage!

Deeper Treasures of Talents 

But.... there is a problem. (Of course there is). Jesus was poor. He wasn’t a rich man who could possibly give a ton of money to his servants. Perhaps the literal meaning of the talents has a spiritual meaning to it.

So, let's look at what happens to the servants when their master returns. The good stewards are welcomed into “your master’s joy.” The bad stewards are thrown “into the darkness outside where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” This is the same language that Jesus uses when he talks about the weeds and the wheat in Matthew 14. There, just as here, the reward and the punishment are clearly meant to produce in us images of heaven and hell—we being the stewards who are judged… judged according to what we have been given and given in return.

But that seems harsh. No matter how extraordinarily large the monetary sum of the talents, it doesn't seem to be within the realm of justice to condemn a servant to an eternal hell for his poor stewardship of a finite treasure-- no matter how large.

Unless..... Unless the treasure isn't finite nor worldly.

Here is where we see what the talents really are: the talents are everything that God gives us about which He expects a return. The talents are more than just our abilities—the talents are every gift that God gives; namely, grace. Grace which is divine and infinite.

 This is why a moral exhortation to “use your talents,” by itself, runs a little flat for me: it focuses only on things that I can do—play the piano, teach kids, kick a soccer ball—while easily overlooking the grace accompanying. Even more, that simple exhortation misses out on many of the really, really big talents that our Lord has given us. For example:

-          how priests are given the power to incarnate Jesus in the Eucharist
-          how married couples literally become one and can bring forth life and image the Trinity
-          how the poor are literally Christ in the world
-          how the Holy Spirit literally pours the transforming life and love of God into our souls

The Talent of Love

You see, Jesus is telling this parable not simply as a moral exhortation. Don’t make this parable about you. This parable is firstly about Him: He is the good master who has given us, his servants, so many treasures! 

So, when we hear about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, etc, don’t make it about you first. It is firstly about Jesus. For hasn't He fed us (and with his very body)? Hasn’t He quenched our thirst by his blood? Has He not clothed us, literally, but also spiritually with his grace?

Only when we see the all-surpassing love Our Lord has lavished upon us does the moral exhortation gain its true meaning: Jesus wants us to become Him: to do the same because, in doing the same, we become another Jesus to the world, a Jesus who loves—which, in turn, deepens our love for Him because we realize in those moments of empathy how profound his gifts to us really are. When it costs us, we realize what it cost Him.

And in this way, we see that love is catalytic: it builds; it grows; it increases. The more a person receives God’s love and gives God’s love, the more God fills that person with His love, expanding that person’s heart… lavishing that person with more and more with that priceless talent which is His love. And the person loves more and is filled more and loves more and is filled more.... 

This is why Jesus sums up the parable by saying:
For to everyone who has,
more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.

Insert the word “love” at the end of the first three lines.
For to everyone who has [love]
more will be given and he will grow rich [in love];
but from the one who has not [love],
even what he has will be taken away.

That is the talent: love. That is what is given to us. And thus it also makes sense that our eternity is dependent upon it. Wailing and grinding of teeth to the wicked who knew not, who gave not, who buried Love. Rejoicing in heaven to those who embraced Love.

The Moral Exhortation

Now we can see the ultimate exhortation: do not bury Love out of fear! After all, what person (Jesus) lights a candle (you) and then places it under a bushel basket? Not Jesus!

Rather, “invest” the Love He gives you. Spend it. Use it.

Now, in light of our talents, we can hear the moral exhortations.

To priests: we bury our talent when we forget that we image Jesus! We bury the greatest treasure when we celebrate the Holy Mass without fervor or gravitas. Woe to us—we shall be thrown outside where there will be wailing! Rather, let us pour out our lives in love, walking in dignity and grace, celebrating the Sacraments in spirit and in truth!

To married couples: we bury our talent when we forget the miraculous bonds that are forged by the Marriage Covenant: spouses are one! We bury the greatest crowning of marriage when we refuse to have children. Woe to us—we shall be thrown outside where there will be grinding of teeth! Rather, let us offer our lives as a sacrifice of love, trusting in the Lord and pouring forth his mercy upon our families—and thus build up our world—for we are the foundational building block of society!

To all Catholics: if we have not love, we are nothing. See Jesus in the poor. As Mother Theresa once said: “When I serve the poor, it is not like I am serving Jesus. I am serving Jesus.” The Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. Of what are we to be afraid? The man, who thought he had little, buried his talent because of fear. Take courage, be not afraid!

The Final Judgment

In the end, there is one final talent that we will have to return to the Lord. And that talent is our life. Again, before we see the moral exhortation, see our Lord Jesus: to us, He gave His life.

If you give your life—a life He gave to you in love—then, at the time of His final visitation, He will bring you into His Presence, surrounded by the whole heavenly host, and rejoice with you, praising you, thanking you, and saying to you in total, infinite, and eternal love:

Well done, my good and faithful servant! Well done!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Flipping Tables in Temples - Homily for the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica (32nd Sunday in OT)

The Lateran Basilica

This morning, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Dedication of the St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. There is no saint called “St. John Lateran.” Rather, the church is named Lateran after the Roman hill upon which it is built; and it is named St. John for St. John the Baptist and for St. John the Evangelist. It is a beautiful church which I was blessed to be able to visit when I lived in Rome. Inside, you would find an awesome place of worship where not only many saints are buried, but above the high altar there is the very altar of wood where St. Peter would offer Holy Mass. Some believe it is also the table on which Jesus offered the Last Supper. It is a very holy and awesome place.

The Dedication of this Basilica—that is, the day of its formal consecration as a place of worship— is celebrated worldwide because of its importance to the Church. The dedication happened a few years after the Roman Emperor, Constantine, had conceded to Catholics the free exercise of their religion in 313AD, thus putting an end to two centuries of horrific martyrdom. Catholics could finally worship freely, gathered together in unity and in one place of worship. In thanksgiving and in praise to God, the basilica was originally named The Most Holy Savior. And for nearly 1,000 years, this is where the Pope resided (and not St. Peter’s as is the case today). 

All of these supernatural and historical realities attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—to encounter our Lord who dwells there.

The Purification of the Old Temple

What is interesting is that on this great feast, Our Lord proposes for us to consider the day in which he enters the Old Temple in Jerusalem and, in a zealous anger, flips over tables and drives out the worldly commerce. The connection with the feast day may seem clear enough: namely: that we are to be zealous for the worship places of God and treat them with reverence.

But there’s a problem.

When I hear this passage, I see an angry Jesus—an anger that seems out of character. Sure, it is justified, but it paints him as a reactionary, a socio-political revolutionary. Is this Jesus?

This week, I read part of the Second Volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth book. And in this scholarly work, the Pope asks a very important question: namely: where in the Old Temple does this all take place? The answer is that it takes place in the Court of the Gentiles. This little detail is very important. The Court of the Gentiles was the outermost court where the non-Jewish people could worship. But given the Jewish people’s attitude towards the Gentiles, this outer court was not used very much and therefore was not considered to be important or holy—a kind of relic of the past that as a result could easily be turned into a place of commerce.

So, when Jesus comes in and drives the commerce from the Court of the Gentiles, not only is He reestablishing the overall Temple as a holy place, but He is also declaring that even this outermost part is holy. What's more: when he clears everything out, what he is doing is clearing a space for the Gentiles to worship and thus to become holy!

The zeal that Jesus has, therefore, is not only for the Temple, but also for His children.

The Dedication of the New Temple

Admittedly, this zeal seems too zealous for us. This is because our culture has separated loving from fighting. Our culture thinks the highest expression of love is tolerance and that love never has to flip over tables. But Jesus is showing us that when you love something, you sometimes have to fight for it. Here, Jesus is fighting for the Gentiles.

This is not a socio-political reactionary at work. This is a lover taking initiative and fighting for his beloved.

The irony is that this will ultimately become the charge that the Jewish people will bring against Jesus in order to crucify Him. Jesus knows this—which adds an even greater depth to what He is doing: not only does He know this will lead to His crucifixion, but by choosing to do this, Jesus is also consenting to the Cross. Flipping over tables, therefore, is not just of a zealous anger, but from a heart burning with a zealous love for us.

This is not out of character at all. It is this same zealous love that will give Him the patience to be silent in trial; it is this same zealous love that will give Him the strength to carry the Cross unto death. There, he will not be overthrowing tables, but the devil and that evil kingdom.

There, on the Cross, Jesus' side will be pierced and from it will flow blood and water, fulfilling the prophecy of Ezekiel and inaugurating the New Temple: a place of healing and of worship—which is exactly what happens after Jesus overthrows the tables in the Old Temple. Immediately after that moment, people come to Him and worship and are healed by Him. All obstacles have been cleared out and the New Temple is dedicated.

The Purification and Dedication of the Christian

What does this mean for us?

Paul says,
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

In other words, you have seen how zealous Jesus is about the Old Temple. How much more so is He zealous about you! He loves you and wants to overthrow the evil in you and establish in you a new reign of holiness in your life.

We often don’t think about this. I mean, there are some things that we say and do out in the world that we would never dare do here in church—because we know this place is holy. Jesus is saying to you: don’t do those profane things even “out there,” because YOU are a holy place. Don’t profane the church that you actually are!

And notice: when you receive the Eucharist today, Jesus will be entering into your temple. He comes to purify you, to clear out the sin in your life, to establish Himself as a place of worship within you, to remove what is profane and to make you holy.

And not only for your own sake, but so that you might become an attractive temple by which others enter into relationship with the Jesus that dwells in you, just as the many pilgrims come to St. John Lateran to encounter the God who dwells there.

People are not attracted to dilapidated and profaned basilicas. They are attracted by the beauty that comes with holiness. You are called to be holy, a holy temple, a dwelling of God—for your sake, for God’s sake, and for the sake of those whom God is calling to Himself through you. We must not be an obstacle like the commerce was in the Old Temple!

So, now we pray.

Jesus, purify me. Make me a temple of holiness; a temple that is purified of the profane; a temple which is dedicated to you alone. Help me to fight for my holiness with the same kind of zealous love that you have for me. Make me holy that I may be a worthy court where others may encounter you and worship you. Lord, purify me!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Commemoration of All Souls - Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Universal Experience of Death

It was a Sunday night. Game Five of the World Series was underway and the Giants were closing in on victory. During the fifth inning, there began a whisper in one of the dugouts, a whisper that made its way to the press box. We would hear that the whisper was about one of our own St. Louis Cardinals. Oscar Tavaras, a promising star for our team, had passed away. He was 21 years old. He and his girlfriend had died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic. People were stunned. So was I.

Back here in St. Louis, two days later, on Tuesday evening, dusk and then the nightly darkness began to fill Busch Stadium. And just as the sun had set, a light grew in a corner of the stadium. The light revealed the green of the grass and the homerun wall and the chalk of the foul ball line. Everything was dark but this corner: right field: the field where Oscar had played—and where we all thought he would play again next year. We were mourning. We remember.

Every one of us has experienced the sadness and the loss and even the fear that comes from death. I still remember the day that my dad had died. I had been teaching at St. Patrick’s in Wentzville and I remember being called to the principal’s office. I had a phone call. It was my brother. I remember his voice and the exact words he said. I remember the shock and the fog while driving home. Sure, dad had his physical ailments in life, but his dying was unexpected. I remember coming back to the rectory later that night and crying. I knew dad died without the sacraments and without reconciling with many people. I remember praying to God that night in a way that I had never prayed before. I begged God for mercy. I pleaded for my dad’s soul.

More Than a Simple Remembering

This evening is the commemoration Mass for All Souls—for all those who have died: our family members, our friends, our neighbors, all. This Mass is more than just lights in right field; for while paying tribute and calling our dead to mind is a very good thing, it is all the more important we engage our loving will and to pray for them. The bonds of charity that had united us on earth continue to bind us to them—for love is stronger than death. Thus, it is not enough to simply not-forget them, we continue to actually serve them.

This might sound odd. But this is what Catholics do. It is what our ancestors in the Jewish faith did (which is mentioned in the book of Maccabees) and it is what our Catholic Church has done in every age since the beginning.

I will admit: most of our culture presumes that pretty much everyone is in heaven—or, at least, anyone that we care about. But if everyone is in heaven, it doesn’t make sense to pray for the dead; because by praying we mean to help them, and those in heaven have no need of our help, because they have been perfected in holiness and now enjoy eternal happiness. We celebrated those heavenly saints yesterday (All Saints Day) and we asked them to help us.

So, we are not praying for those souls. Likewise, we aren’t praying for those souls in hell, either; for, once a soul is in hell, there is nothing we can do for them.

So, if we are not praying for those souls who are in heaven or in hell, then who are we praying for?

A Fruitful Grieving

There is a third group of people: those who, at the time of their death, were in friendship with God, but who had not been totally perfected in the holiness God wanted for them or who, at their death, were still attached to something of this earth. (For even a thin string can keep a bird from flying). They died in friendship with God, so they will not go to hell. But they died without having become perfect, so they cannot yet enter heaven, because not one impurity can enter into the presence of God. Heaven is the absence of any imperfection, the absence of any sin or evil.

God, in his justice, could have simply cast this people into hell. But in his mercy, he has established a third place, a temporary place, where these impurities and imperfections are burned away by the fires of love. This place is called Purgatory.

This isn’t as foreign as we may think.

When God sends us the suffering of a cross here on earth, that is our opportunity to be purged and to be perfected in love for God and neighbor. Here on earth, we have the benefit of grace and the Sacraments and the intercession of saints to assist us in our sufferings—sufferings that we can offer for the salvation of our soul.  In a sense, sufferings in this life are the “half-off coupons.”

Purgatory is having to pay full price. There, the souls do not have the benefit of the Sacraments, nor do they possess the ability to offer their sufferings for their salvation. When they died, their choice of love had been cemented—that’s what death does—they cannot increase in love on their own.

But when we pray to God for them and offer sacrifices of love for them, then those souls can be increased, purified, in love. As we offer our prayers and our sufferings for the dead, the souls in purgatory are perfected until at last they enter heaven.

This is actually quite a beautiful teaching. What God has done by establishing purgatory is that He has established a continuing connection between us and our beloved dead. Knowing that we still love them, God has given us an opportunity to continue to express our love for them. Our love is expressed not only in tears and grieving, but we can express our love also in praying for them and offering our sufferings for them.

What a great response God has given to the needs of our human heart-- that our grieving can bear fruit! What a great gift of mercy! We have hope that our dead are in heaven, but we love and pray for them as though they are in purgatory. Lord, look with mercy and bring them home!

The Family and the Cemetery

Today’s Holy Mass inaugurates an entire month when we are particularly obliged to offer prayers and sacrifices for our dead. Here at St. Joseph’s, we are very blessed to have a cemetery next to our church. And perhaps you have passed by it a thousand times. Will you stop by today? Bring your son or your granddaughter; enter through its gates; and stand before a grave of a loved one or someone whom you do not know. Pray for that person. Pray for that soul who has been forgotten or who is in most need of God’s mercy. Yes, this requires faith for you to see that this person is still alive; and having believed, you now pray in love.

Truly, I am convinced that one of the joys of heaven is being welcomed by all of those souls who we helped to bring into heaven by our prayers.

St. Joseph Cemetery in Cottleville
Let us all be united in prayer for our dead, lifting them up to the Father at this Holy Sacrifice. It is likely that the person sitting next to you has buried a loved one—and maybe even this year. Say a prayer for their loved one who has passed away. Say a prayer for the person next to you.

Who knows. Maybe the person or the family sitting next to you will be the ones who will be praying some day for you. Maybe their son will be the priest that brings you last rites at the hour of your death. Maybe it will be their grandchildren who stand over your grave and lovingly ask the Father to have mercy on you and bring you peace.

Yes, brothers and sisters, our God has united us in love and therefore in prayer. In life. And in death.

And so we pray: Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

May the angels lead you into paradise, 
may the martyrs receive you 
in your coming, 
and may they guide you 
into the holy city, Jerusalem. 
May the chorus of angels receive you 
and with Lazarus once poor 
may you have eternal rest.