My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The month of November is dedicated to prayer for our departed brothers and sisters. A reason for praying for the dead is expressed each time we recite the Creed. We believe in the communion of the Church in heaven with the Church on earth, the Communion of Saints as we properly call it. More specifically, the Church has three states, those who enjoy full glory before God, those who still live on earth and those being purified by waiting to enter into eternal glory.
The Communion of Saints joins these three modes of being members of the Church together into one great spiritual solidarity, and for this reason we ask those in glory to intercede for us, as they are the saints, whether officially canonized by the Church or not. Not only do we share communion and fellowship with one another in our worship, but also we have communion with the dead, those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, as we pray in the first Eucharistic prayer.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of the powerful union we have with one another and the necessity of praying for the dead: “Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also making their intercession for us effective.” Yes, even those who are being purified and waiting for their entrance into glory can pray for us. Most especially those already in glory pray for us, and we are united in a bond of communion stronger than we can imagine.
When the Church speaks of purgatory, we remember, as the Catechism tells us: “All those who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still are 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.” Being separated from God after death is a terrible pain, it is a pain worse than any fire we can imagine, the desire for God and yet the inability to contemplate Him.
Several years ago, the theological advisory commission to the Holy Father gave a recommendation to clarify the Church’s teaching on Limbo, which was a theological opinion that those who have died without baptism live in the state without suffering, but still are separated from God. Theological opinions are not formal teachings of the Church. In fact, the Church has never formally declared that limbo is another state of being for those who have died without baptism. A new and better understanding of this area of theological inquiry is that God’s tremendous mercy is beyond our comprehension. The universal salvific will of God can save infants and fetuses who may die without baptism in a way that we may never fully understand.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical on hope, titled “Spe Salvi,” gives us some insight into eternal life, especially when he speaks of eternity. Perhaps some are unwilling to face eternity, as they may believe eternity in some way is the continuation of the life we know presently. In fact, eternity is totally different from what we have already experienced. Our Holy Father describes it in this manner, “To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality – this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”
I would like to explain the Holy Father’s statement in this way. Can we ever imagine a moment in which we felt most loved in our life? Was it the love of a parent? A spouse? A child? That moment, I believe, is what Pope Benedict is speaking to us about. The Holy Father goes on to say, “This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: ‘I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ (16:22).”
Thinking about the life to come and the communion of saints and the joy that they experienced, either the joy of the anticipation of seeing God or beholding the beatific vision, is something that can give us comfort at this time.
Recently, a reporter asked me why the Church concentrates so much on death. My simple response was, “If the Church can say nothing about death, what can we truly say about life? Because it is a part of life, we need to be able to address death and to teach what we know from Revelation about the life to come.”
Eternity is the ultimate putting out into the deep. During these feasts of All Saints and All Souls, we join ourselves with those who have gone before us, recognizing our solidarity with them. We ask them for intercession and we pray to them and for them during these beginning days of November.