The following is the text of the homily delivered by Bishop Rhoades at Mass on All Souls Day, November 2nd, 2010, at the Pontifical College Josephinum.
All Souls Day
Yesterday, the Feast of All Saints, we contemplated the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem. Today we remember those who have died, yet are still on the journey toward the holy city. In his beautiful encyclical on Christian hope, Pope Benedict writes that we can suppose that the experience of purgatory is one that the great majority of people have (or will have). I think this is something we need to rediscover since there is a tendency today, especially at funerals, to presume that the deceased immediately are with God in heaven. Perhaps this is natural since, in the midst of grief, people want to believe that their loved ones are immediately in eternal peace. But the Holy Father says that “those who are so pure that they can enter immediately into God’s communion are undoubtedly few” (Meeting with Clergy of Rome, February 7, 2008).
The doctrine of purgatory, forgotten or ignored by many, is, I believe, an obvious and necessary truth. We need to be made capable of being with God for eternity. We need to have that integrity in order to enter into perfect and complete communion with God. We need to be prepared and purified since there are so many wounds, “so much dirt in our souls” that “needs to be washed with God’s goodness” (ibid.). This is what purgatory is: it is not a place, but “a condition of existence.” In this state of purification after death, the remnants of imperfection are removed from the souls in purgatory by the merciful love of Christ (General audience of Pope John Paul II, August 4, 1999).
There is an image used by Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians that sheds some light on this mystery of purgatory. The Apostle Paul speaks of the value of our work on earth and how it will be revealed on the day of judgment. He writes: “If the work which any man has built on the foundation (which is Christ) survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3: 14-15). Pope Benedict explains that “in this text, it is … evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through ‘fire’ so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast” (Spe Salvi #46). What is this fire? It is Christ Himself and the holy power of His love. In our encounter with the Lord at death, there is a healing that takes place through the burning away of the dirt in our souls, the elimination of every trace of attachment to evil within us, the correction of the imperfections of our souls. This is the purification called purgatory. Pope Benedict writes that “in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. Christ’s gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. … At the moment of judgment we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy” (Spe Salvi #47). We are thus cleansed and transformed as we pass to communion with God, made ready to enter the heavenly Jerusalem.
Ecclesial Solidarity with the Souls in Purgatory
Today, All Souls Day, we remember in prayer all our brothers and sisters who live in this state of purification. The beautiful and profound doctrine of the communion of saints reminds us of our ecclesial solidarity, not only with the saints in heaven, but also with the souls in purgatory. We are all part of the Mystical Body of Christ: the saints in heaven, the souls in purgatory and we the pilgrim Church on earth. How does this solidarity work? Through prayer and love! We can offer up prayers and good works on behalf of our brothers and sisters in purgatory. Indeed, we have a holy obligation to pray for the dead who may need final purification in order to enter the joy of heaven. The Church has always recommended prayers for the dead.
Masses for the Deceased
Some weeks ago, I had a conversation with the priests on the Presbyteral Council of my diocese. They related to me that there has been a significant decrease in recent years of people requesting Masses for the deceased. It is important for us to revitalize this tradition since prayer for the deceased reaches its summit in the celebration of the Eucharist. By offering Mass for the faithful departed, we are sustaining their final purification. When we receive Holy Communion with faith, our bonds of spiritual love with the deceased are strengthened. Death cannot destroy our spiritual communion with our beloved deceased. We will pray in the Prayer after Communion at the end of today’s Mass: “Lord God, may the death and resurrection of Christ which we celebrate in this Eucharist bring the departed faithful to the peace of your eternal home.” The Mass, which makes present the sacrifice of the Cross, has a power that touches not only us, but those for whom we offer the sacrifice. The offering of Mass is the greatest prayer we can offer for our beloved deceased brothers and sisters. The fruits of the Mass draw the faithful departed into the ultimate communion of saints in the heavenly banquet.
Our Profound Communion in Love with the Deceased
Some may ask how we as third persons can intervene in the lives of those who have died, how our prayers or our works can benefit the souls in purgatory. Pope Benedict reflects on this in his encyclical on Christian hope. He writes: “When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other — my prayer for him — can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. … As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.”
This is what All Saints Day and All Souls Day are all about. Our lives here on earth are profoundly linked with our brothers and sisters in heaven and with our brothers and sisters in purgatory. We pray for the dead today, trusting that, in a way beyond our understanding, we can contribute to their entry into the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem. The communion of saints is a wondrous mystery. At this Eucharist and at every celebration of the Eucharist, we entrust our beloved dead to the Lord. We present to the Father of mercies those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. Our prayers for the dead are an expression of our love for them and our ecclesial solidarity with them. We are all united in Christ, members of his Mystical Body. We live in the blessed hope that we will one day be together in the glory of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, the family of God united in perfect joy and peace.
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