Put Out into the Deep

Understanding the Journey Home

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

During November, dedicated to the memory of the departed, we can meditate on our eventual departure from this world and what it means in light of what the Church teaches. Recently, I read a wonderful book in Italian written by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, entitled “C’è un dopo? La Morte E La Speranza” (“Is There Something Afterwards? The Hope for Eternal Life”). The Cardinal was asked specifically by Pope Benedict XVI, his good friend, to put down his thoughts about eternal life, as Cardinal Ruini was a great theology professor and Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome.

As we look to our future end, we know that each one of us must leave this world. Our ideas of what awaits us are probably not as clear as they should be. Unfortunately, it seems that we have forgotten the teaching of the Church. Each Sunday we recite the article in the Creed, “We believe in the Communion of Saints and the resurrection of the body.” There is so much behind these words. But do we grasp their meaning?

Perhaps one of the best ways to understand our future is to recognize that we do not face it alone. Our faith is in the Communion of Saints, those who live in this world as believers; those who are undergoing their final time of purification; and those who already enjoy union with God. The Church is one great fellowship of believers who are at different stages on the journey to the Father’s house.

Understanding our eventual end is important. In his Encyclical “Saved in Hope,” Pope Benedict wrote that our vision of eternity may either frighten or bore us. The images suggested by our prayers are typically that of everlasting peace and eternal rest. The first sounds appealing, but the second might give the impression of boredom. He explains that eternal life is anything but boring. Consider, he says, those experiences of being unconditionally loved. For example, we need only think of the love of a spouse for his or her married partner or the love of a mother or father for their child; or the love of a child for his or her parents. Being present to God in heaven is the multiplication by infinity of such moments of unconditional love. Certainly, the prospect of being fully present to the infinitely loving God should neither frighten nor bore us, but it should fill us with anticipatory joy.

The Church has taught us that not all of us are ready immediately after death to enjoy the vision of God. We are taught that for some there is a time of purification or cleansing of all selfish and sinful desires to which we cling upon leaving this world. As St. John Paul II said about Purgatory: “Here we do not find ourselves before a mere tribunal. We present ourselves before the power of love itself.  Before all else, it is love that judges…It is love that demands purification.”

In Purgatory, the longing for the divine friend we love is more powerful than any pain we might experience through the overcoming of sin and the reparation of the hurts caused by our sins. We long for the God who is love as we long for a friend whom we have not seen for a very long time. Perhaps we lost contact with him or her for reasons of neglect, but now we look forward to seeing that person when the time is right. In the meantime, our hope is that the reunion will soon take place. The anticipation of its nearness arouses a deeper and deeper desire to be in the friend’s company once again.

The Church teaches definitively that human beings who are saved but not ready for heaven must undergo purification. The name Purgatory may suggest to some faithful a place of punishment. But purgation is more a process than a place, more an experience of anticipation than of punishment. Purgatory is the means by which God’s grace makes us fit for heaven. It is the process by which sinners saved by Christ’s meritorious death on the Cross grow into the relationship of perfect love with him who has called us to life. Rather than make us afraid, Purgatory should inspire hope in the God who never gives up on any of us.

Recently, Pope Francis journeyed to Sweden for a joint ecumenical commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. The Holy Father gathered with leaders from the Lutheran World Federation and of other Christian Churches and communities. Martin Luther, who began the Reformation, attacked the doctrine of Purgatory in some of his writings, juxtaposing it to the idea that human beings are justified (set on the path to God) by virtue of the good works they perform, rather than by faith in the Cross of Christ. Over the past 50 years, ecumenical dialogue has helped us Catholics understand better the insights of Luther. Today, Catholics and Lutherans can, thanks to a 1999 Declaration between the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation, say together that we begin undeservedly the journey back to the heavenly Father by faith in Christ, His Son. But this journey always includes the loving works of mercy that are the fruits of genuine faith.

Along this journey, believers are joined to the Communion of Saints, that marvelous fellowship that spans time and space. We help each other with our prayers and good works, no matter on which side of the veil between heaven and earth we may be. The saints assist us by their powerful prayers and intercessions before the throne of God. We assist the souls in Purgatory by our prayers and sacrificial deeds, so they can hasten to the joy of the heavenly vision. That is why during November we offer Masses for the deceased, a practice that should be a year-long occupation for us. It has been said that there is infinite value of having a Mass celebrated for our deceased relative or friend.

What is the Mass and what can it do for the departed? St. Thomas Aquinas said, “The celebration of Holy Mass is as valuable as the death of Jesus on the Cross.” That may sound like hyperbole, but many saints have spoken in this manner because they recognize that the Mass is the sacramental re-presentation of the death and resurrection of Jesus, whose fruits free us from all sin and the fear of death. Having a Mass celebrated for deceased relatives or friends helps them on their way, because they need our assistance, our prayers and sacrificial deeds.

Cardinal Ruini said it this way, “It is Christ in fact who is the fire that burns our sins, and burning them liberates us and transforms us.” Several weeks ago, I preached on this topic. After Mass, one of the parishioners approached me and asked, “Do we still believe in Purgatory?” The fact of the matter is that we do still believe in Purgatory. It is that purification from sin and growth into heavenly readiness, without having to conceive of it as Catholics have in the past, namely, a specific place of punishment.

Often I have said at Mass that we are closer to our deceased relatives and friends in that moment of Eucharistic celebration than if we were standing upon their graves. This is because, when we pray the Mass, we are united with the entire Communion of Saints, among whom are our beloved deceased.

During this month of November, we renew our hope in eternal life. The journey of life in this world ends with our standing before the Risen One, who is the goal of the Christian life. Meeting Christ, whose healing power cleanses our fellow-believers undergoing purgation, is not something to fear, but rather something in which we should rejoice and find deep comfort. Truly, as we think about eternal life, we put out into the deep mystery of the salvation that Christ has won for us. Throughout the year, pray for the dead, knowing that they will assist us on our journey when they finally reach our heavenly home.