Each November we Catholics turn our attention towards the final things: Death, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. November is the month of the Holy Souls. Not only today – All Souls Day – nor even the fact that we are here in this cemetery, but throughout this month we remember the holy souls.
Naturally we first remember our own loved ones – our deceased relatives and friends. Our thoughts are for them and our prayers are directed for them. We have Masses said for the repose of their souls.
But within the Church we also want to remember all the faithful departed. Our prayers – as members of the Church - ascend for all those in purgatory. We the Church on earth still in pilgrimage intercede for those who have died and await final glory – the souls in purgatory.
The custom of remembering the faithful departed goes back to the early days of the church, when their names were posted in the church so they could be remembered. As early as the sixth century, monasteries held special days of remembrance for the dead from their community and by the ninth century they were commemorating all the faithful departed. What we are doing today has ancient roots and is expressed in various cultures in various ways.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven."
We know from our early teaching about the faith that the Church call this purification process, Purgatory. Pope Gregory the Great taught,
"As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come." (see CCC#1031)
When we gather to pray for the dead we are uplifted by the celebration we had yesterday, the Feast of All Saints. There we are able to contemplate heavenly glory. The Souls in Purgatory are on their way to heavenly glory.
It is good for us on this Mass for All Souls Day to think of heaven and we pray for our deceased relatives and friends, and all the faithful departed, that they may experience heavenly glory. We celebrate All Souls in the light of the Feast of All Saints.
On this day there is also a sober reminder of the reality of death. We are here at a cemetery. The headstones, the vaults, remind us of those who have died. Their earthly pilgrimage is ended.
When we consider death we do so from the attitude of faith, our Catholic faith. We know that death and life are central to our faith. At every Mass when the priest invites us to announce the mystery of faith we say: “We proclaim your death O Lord and profess your resurrection. We proclaim both death and resurrection”. This is the central Christian mystery.
For the Christian, death gives meaning to life.
The ancient fathers of the faith urged us to keep the moment of our death before our eyes. Contemplating death enables us to have wisdom and insight into how we should live our lives.
For the Christian a focus on death is done in relationship to the death of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Each of the Gospels gives a long and detailed account of the death of Christ. Describing the passion and death of Christ takes up one third of the Gospel of St Mark.
We know why this is the case. The death of Christ was not just a tragic end to his life and ministry, it was the climax of his life and ministry. The death of Christ was the ultimate purpose of his coming. It was the moment of the redemption of the human race. It was the triumph of love and mercy over sin and death. It was God’s definitive act to save us from death and open for us the way to eternal life.
The Christian approaches death not desperately clinging to the last vestiges of life, but as a transition from a mortal existence on earth to entry into communion with God in heaven. It is a letting go of the imperfect to move to the perfect.
St Paul descriptively captures this in his second letter to the Corinthians: “if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens”.
This Mass of the Commemoration of All Souls takes us beyond our daily concerns to look at the full vision of reality. To think of death and to contemplate heaven brings a true perspective to daily life. It nourishes our hope.
Let us take a moment during this Mass to commend to the love and mercy of God the faithful departed who have been part of our lives. Let us also lift our prayer as a member of the Church here on earth and pray for all the souls in purgatory.
May the souls of all the departed through the mercy of God rest in peace and rise on the Last Day to heavenly glory.
Archbishop Julian Porteous
Monday, 31 October 2016