Monday, November 2, 2009

The Faithful Departed

The Church has encouraged prayer for the dead from the earliest times as an act of Christian charity. "If we had no care for the dead," Augustine noted, "we would not be in the habit of praying for them." In the early Middle Ages monastic communities began to mark an annual day of prayer for the departed members. In the middle of the 11th century, St. Odilo, abbot of Cluny (France), decreed that all Cluniac monasteries offer special prayers and sing the Office for the Dead on November 2, the day after the feast of All Saints. The custom spread from Cluny and was finally adopted throughout the Roman Church. The theological underpinning of the feast is the acknowledgment of human frailty. Since few people achieve perfection in this life but, rather, go to the grave still scarred with traces of sinfulness, some period of purification is necessary before a soul comes face-to-face with God. The Council of Trent affirmed this purgatory state and insisted that the prayers of the living can speed the process of purification.

The Holy Gospel according to Saint John (6.37-40)

Jesus said, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."

Sin and the Beyond
(Homily by Fr. E.J. Tyler)

There are a whole range of starting points in human thought upon which different philosophies are built. For instance, one starting point is the perception of a lack of ultimate substance in the things of experience. That is to say, everything changes, comes and goes, and cannot be relied upon. Another starting point is the experience of communion and love. Another is the sense of one’s own self as the one immediate and certain reality. A philosophy arises from basic perceptions of reality that form the ground of a thinker’s entire perspective. In the nineteenth century, John Henry Newman understood the fact of sin as a primary facet of human life and therefore of reality. It was, he thought, a basic starting point of any true philosophy. This is a very interesting observation because it places the natural experience of an offended God at the root of human reflection. This is not the moment to digress into the development of a philosophy. But Newman’s observation reminds us of the basic fact of sin. It is a fact that stares man in the face and around which life revolves in his search for happiness. That having been said, it is also paradoxically the case that the fact of sin is widely missed in human thought. It is rare to find it occupying a pivotal place in philosophy. Ethics - and therefore unethical behaviour - occupies a central place, but not sin. Sin is that wrongdoing which involves offending a holy God, and Newman’s point is that this sense of an offended God is a primary datum of experience. Indeed, we might add, this natural sense of an offended God accompanies sinful man throughout the short span of his life. It opens him to the wondrous news of the Gospel that there is a Redeemer who has come to be his Brother, Friend and Sanctifier. The good news of Christ is that, due to the gift of grace, man’s obviously sinful state can be combated and gradually overcome. He, man, can become holy to his core, and a true image of his all-holy Redeemer. Mary, the utterly sinless mother of Christ, is the living icon of the power of grace to preserve man from sin.

This is the drama and issue of human life: the contest between sin and holiness in the heart of man. There is need for a philosophy which sets this basic issue at the foundation of experience and makes it the ground of thought and of religion. It is the issue that remains at the forefront of life right to the end. At the last, man goes out from this life with the contest resolved one way or the other. His course is set forever, depending on which has prevailed. However, it is also a fact of experience that while in ultimate terms the contest is resolved at his death, clearly for those whose hearts have been won to holiness, the work is not yet over. People die being good, or desiring to be good - but they are not yet completely good. They are in God’s camp and behind the Standard of Christ, but there is much to be done in their hearts before they can be admitted forever into the shining and lovely presence of the all-holy God. They are still soiled and scarred by the ravages of sin and require a deep cleansing, a purification of all the sinful grime so deeply ingrained in the structure of the soul. The good news is that after death the saving grace of Christ continues actively to sanctify the one who has died in Christ but who is not yet entirely holy. Those who die in Christ, those who die on the side of goodness, will receive the mercy of a complete cleansing - deeply painful but joyous - with the knowledge that God is their future. All this means that a complete sanctification is ahead for the one who dies in Christ, but who is not yet entirely holy. With this Purgatory over, eternal joy will be theirs. It is a dogma of the Church that, following death, the righteous are purified of the remnants and results of sin to the extent necessary. Whether this takes the equivalent of a period of time we are not certain. What is certain is that those in Christ here on earth and those already in heaven can intercede for those in Purgatory and hasten the purification they are undergoing. We can and should pray for the faithful departed. We can have Masses celebrated for their speedy entry into the presence of God. Those in Purgatory depend on our prayers, and on All Souls Day the entire Church prays for their rapid entry into eternal bliss.

St Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England and martyr of the Church under King Henry VIII, placed powerful emphasis on works of charity towards the dead. We should pray for them, have masses said for them, offer up our sacrifices and penances for them, looking on them as our needy brothers and sisters. They await our charity. More wrote powerfully of the gratitude they will feel towards us when, due to our prayers, they enter the presence of God forever. There they will be our heavenly intercessors while we make our way through life and, in our turn, come to depend on them for prayers during our own purification in Purgatory. Let us pray each day for the souls in Purgatory.

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