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Mercy and the four last things

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley         November 13, 2016

We are drawing near the end of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Divine mercy offers the best context for meditating on what the Church calls the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. 

During the month of November, the Church’s liturgy and popular devotion turn our attention to these matters of ultimate concern. This is no morbid fascination, but a sober reminder of the transitory nature of this world and a bold summons to Christian hope. We began the month celebrating the saints in glory on All Saints Day. On Nov. 2, we observed the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day), and later in the month, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we celebrate the triumphant Solemnity of Christ the King.

 Though we may not like to think about the four last things, they are inescapable for each of us. They remind us of the eternal destiny that God has prepared for us in Jesus Christ and the eternal consequences of turning our back on God’s love. Saint John of the Cross wrote, “In the evening of our life, we shall be judged on our love.” Perfect love will make possible our immediate entrance into heaven. Imperfect love will require further purification. A total lack of love will mean eternal separation from God. 

God has made us for heaven, where we will discover the perfect fulfillment of all human longing in supreme and eternal happiness. We cannot even begin to imagine the joy God has prepared for us in heaven. The bible uses images such as a wedding banquet and the Father’s house to inspire a glimpse of the happiness of heaven. We know that we will enjoy perfect communion in love with the most Holy Trinity and all of the angels and saints. In order to reveal the Father’s mercy, Jesus Christ has opened the gates of heaven for us by accepting death for our sins and by his Resurrection from the dead.

At the other end of the spectrum is the frightful rejection of mercy, which is hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God” (CCC 1035), who alone is our supreme and ultimate fulfillment. In choosing to persist in sin, those who are condemned to hell have freely rejected God’s love and his call to repentance. “God predestines no one to go to hell” (CCC 1037). He desires only our happiness. But, he will not and cannot violate our freedom and force us to accept his mercy and to love him. In that sense, hell is of our own making and choosing. 

Those who die in the state of friendship with God, but who are not fully perfected in love, are assured of salvation, but they must first undergo further purification of the effects of their sins. Only those who are perfected in love and holiness are able to bear the weight of glory and enter into the presence of the Most Holy Trinity. This process of purification after death is called purgatory. “The Church gives the name Purgatory to the final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031). 

We really do not know precisely what purgatory is. It is often described in terms of a purifying fire. The image of fire helps us recognize that perfect love is achieved only through a painful stripping away of the remnants of self-centeredness that cling to us and keep us from loving freely and totally. 

In the Communion of Saints, we are united with fellow believers on earth, with the suffering souls in purgatory as well as the blessed in heaven. In this wonderful communion of life and love, we are able to assist and be assisted by the prayers and good works of one another. 

The Church is always mindful of the duty to assist those in purgatory, especially through the celebration of the Eucharist. We remember the faithful departed in every Mass. But, we also have the opportunity to request that Masses be offered for the deceased, especially for our deceased loved ones.

As an expression of the mystery of the Communion of Saints, the Church also allows us to obtain indulgences and apply them in charity toward the souls in purgatory. Though it is our Christian duty always to be mindful of the faithful departed, the month of November is an opportune time. On All Souls Day, we come to the aid our deceased brothers and sisters by special remembrances at Mass as well as by other local customs.

In many cultures, it is the day set aside for the praiseworthy practice of visiting the graves of deceased family members. By visiting these places we honor the dead, and by our prayers we assist them as they await the fulfillment of their hope, which is the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. 

Even though we are approaching the end of this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we know that God’s mercy endures forever. Our role is to respond to God’s gift of mercy and become channels of his mercy for others, including the faithful departed. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.