I have always found funerals to be tremendous opportunities for pastoral ministry. At a time when someone’s life is upended because of the death of someone, there can be an openness to God that was not present before. It is at these moments that we often ask ultimate questions. “What is my life about?” “Where do I find purpose? ” “Why did God put me here on this earth?” We may even be led to ask questions of anger at God. “Why didn’t you prevent this?” Why did she have to die so young?” Often when we ask these questions, we are not expecting other human beings to answer them. We are often looking for God in the midst of all of this, and to determine what our lives mean now.
Most of all, I think, we want to be certain we will never forget the person that we love. In the Old Testament, this concept of being “remembered” was an initial understanding of the afterlife. To be cast into Sheol, that “nothing” place, and forgotten was the ultimate suffering. For us today, we too know the importance of being remembered. People we love have a significant impact on our lives. They shape us and mold us into the persons we are. Our lives are quite different because they were in them than they would be if there were not.
We celebrate today, the Feast of All Souls precisely because we know as Catholics that ultimate meaning is found here in the Eucharist. It is found in receiving Jesus, but also in acknowledging that we are called to by God to be the Body of Christ. Each time we come to Mass, we are united with the entire Body of Christ, living and dead. Our ultimate identity is tied up with the person of Christ. He made us and he calls us to follow him, to imitate him, because in so doing we become our truest selves.
We also celebrate today because we believe our prayers for the dead have benefit. The Bible does not say too much about the afterlife, but as we read in the Book of Maccabees it had become customary in Judaism, with the deepening awareness of the afterlife, to offer prayers for the dead. In the Catholic faith, we hold to a tradition that there is a period of purification, for those of us who need it, where we will be purged from our sinfulness. There are so many ways to understand this, and really no one knows for certain, since only Jesus has died and risen again.
But I thought it helpful to offer some images that I find helpful in understanding the concept of Purgatory. I must begin by saying that God is in no way limited — he certainly wills us to be saved. But as we know, God’s mercy is tempered by God’s justice. We have heard children say many times, I suspect, “That’s not fair!” From the earliest ages of our awareness, we development a fundamental concept of fairness, even if it is the case that we are wrong in thinking about what fairness means. (Consider the Scriptures when God asks whether it is God’s way or our way that is not fair.)
I believe Purgatory to be an expression of God’s mercy. Not all sin is created equal, this we know. There is sin, and then there is sin. This has been traditionally been expressed in the concept of venial and mortal sin. Those of you who are parents know that when your children do something wrong, it is not always on the same level. Those of you who are married know that when you fail in your marriage, these failures are not on the same level. And we who live in community know the same thing.
Specifically there is some sin, that, while still sin, is not as serious. In a way, while there was still a conscious decision to reject God, it was in a more minor area of our relationship with God. There is also that sin that is so destructive that we know we need to hit the reset button, so to speak. We cannot continue in an authentic relationship with God because we have so harmed the relationship. In order to be authentic, we need the grace of God. We cannot heal this serious sin on our own, and this serious sin is not simply a matter of greater resolve or willpower. No, this serious sin needs the mercy of God in a profound way. Only God can fix this type of sin.
This is, of course, true of all sin, but the Church has long recognized that when it comes to sin, the best remedy is the sacrament of confession. Why is this? Could we not simply go to God directly? Of course. But I think we experience God most profoundly in the verbal telling of our sins to another. It seems we really are able to empty ourselves of sinfulness so that we can be filled again with God’s grace. Of course in celebrating the sacrament of confession, we are certainly meeting Christ, the merciful one.
I am sometimes asked, “What are you thinking when you sit in confession?” Truth be told, and please do not take this as a challenge, we are not very creative as human beings in our sinfulness. And so I am not thinking horrible things about the person going to confession. No, I am humbled. I too, am sinful. I, too, go to confession. What I am most thinking is “What can I say to this person to help them be more open to God’s desire for a deeper and fuller relationship?” For I am a only a vessel for God’s grace. I understand acting in persona Christi as allowing myself to be used by the Christ to forgive. And to be a part of such wonderful and profound graceful activity and presence of God is most beautiful.
Purgatory is another expression of God’s mercy. Knowing that not all sin is equal, God provides a way for us to be fully healed before entering into his presence. To me, it is like the preparation that occurs when you invite someone to your house. Often there is an attempt to clean the house (more likely I think if you are not a man) to welcome the guests, and to communicate in some way they are important. Purgatory is this type of preparation. To enter the courts of our God, we need to be prepared.
And so on this Feast of All Souls, we are reminded of our need to pray for the dead, and of God’s unimaginable mercy.