My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This past week we celebrated three important days in our Church year. The Vigil of All Saints, commonly known as Halloween, which has become a secularized observance that soon may outspend the expenditures of Christmas itself. Halloween has become an opportunity for spending money on costumes, candies, pumpkins, and decorations which underneath it all is a search for spiritual meaning as I have interpreted this observance.
The fascination with the occult, with the Devil, zombies, and spirits teaches us that our human hearts long for something more than we can see. Unfortunately, the misinterpretation of the Vigil of All Saints has led many to struggle in what is certainly the less than spiritual observance of the All Saints Vigil.
The Feast of All Saints on Nov. 1 gives us an opportunity to recognize the many un-canonized heroes of our Christian and Catholic faith. All of us in our lives have known saintly people, people who perhaps cannot be canonized but people whom we are sure in our estimation lead extraordinarily good lives who most probably share the vision of God at the time of their death or shortly after. We recognize human goodness, we praise that goodness, and, hopefully, we try to imitate that goodness when we find it in our loved ones and others who we meet along the path of life.
Today, however, I would like to concentrate on the Feast of All Souls, which sometimes does not get proper attention in the course of our liturgical year. The issue is that we have to accept what the Church teaches that after death there is an individual particular judgment that we undergo. If at the time of our death we are not ready to enter into the full vision of God, we spend time “waiting” (as we might call it in our human estimation), not fully experiencing what we have come to know as the Beatific Vision, the vision of God who is all love.
Unfortunately, the Reformation, which this year commemorates its 500th anniversary, was in many ways an attack on the Doctrine of Purgatory. Perhaps this is because of the abuses surrounding the understanding of indulgences which lessens the time we spend away from God by either earning these indulgences (a term which is not easy to understand) or having them applied to us by others after our death. When all is said and done, this involves the Doctrine of the Communion of Saints, which is that the saints in Heaven, the souls in Purgatory and we the Church Militant on earth are joined in what is known as the Communion of Saints. This means that we can assist one another by our prayers and good works, by having our loved ones remembered in the celebration of the Eucharist, and by offering sacrifices for those who have gone before us.
Recently at the centennial celebration of St. Nicholas of Tolentine parish in Queens, I had the opportunity to study the life of a particular saint who has become the patron saint of the suffering of the souls in Purgatory. Interestingly, he was an Augustinian monk, the same order as Martin Luther who denied the existence of Purgatory. St. Nicholas had an apparition of the deceased monk whom he knew. The monk asked Nicholas to pray for him and offer the sacrifice of the Mass for his soul. During his lifetime, St. Nicholas became an advocate for those who yet had to enter into full communion with God. We, in turn, must also be advocates for our loved ones who have gone before us and perhaps have not achieved the union with God that we all desire.
Pope Benedict XVI, whom I believe to be one of the best practical theologians of our time, spoke in his 2007 encyclical “Saved in Hope” (Spe Salve) about eternal life, which many people fear or do not desire since they cannot imagine what it can be like. I am paraphrasing his reasoning, however, Benedict compared eternal life to an experience of being loved unconditionally. Whatever that experience might have been – the love of a spouse, a parent for a child, a child for a parent, or a friend. This is approximate in some way to the experience of the love that we find in eternal life because eternal life is union with God who is all love.
Our human experience of love needs to be multiplied to infinity as we approximate the love that we will experience when we stand before God who is all love. In this encyclical, Pope Benedict goes on to talk about Purgatory itself and emphasizes that there it is a process and not a place. Purgatory is the process of being burned by Christ’s love, a love that takes away all the things that take us away from God, making us ready to encounter God face-to-face.
Benedict reminds that we can help the souls in Purgatory with our prayers and our offering of Mass because the love of God has no limits of time and space, and we are in a position to assist them.
Pope Benedict says, “The souls of the departed can, however, receive ‘solace and refreshment’ through the Eucharist, prayer, and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife…” Simply put, Purgatory is a purification by the fire of love preparing us to encounter the Lord who is judge and Savior.
Pope Benedict reminds us that “No one is saved alone.” We are saved in hope, and we are saved in communion with each other.
Perhaps to complete my teaching today, we are reminded by Pope Benedict that Hell happens when people who have destroyed the desire for truth and love and for whom everything else is a lie. Hell is for people who have lived hatred and spurned love. Pope John Paul II told us that the Church has never declared that anyone is in hell, or that Hell does exist for people who deny God, who live their lives in complete hatred, and who spurn the call of God who is all love.
As I go from parish-to-parish, I notice that many Mass intentions are not taken. Perhaps some people have lost the understanding that the Sacrifice of the Mass is a way that we can assist our dearly departed in a way in which we can truly be closer to them than at any other time. I have said it before in many celebrations of All Souls Day – we could stand on their graves and never be closer to them than when we participate in the celebration of the Eucharist. This is because time and space are suspended, and we are truly living in the Communion of Saints.
As we put out into the deep, trying to understand time and eternity with our human intellect, we recognize that the Eucharist is the most powerful means of expressing love between God and man and among ourselves. Hopefully, during this past week, we all took advantage of praying at the Eucharist, as it is never too late to assist our dearly departed with the application of a Mass intention for their benefit.