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.

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