Archbishop Paul S. Coakley
During the month of November the Church’s liturgy and popular devotion turn our attention to the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. This is no morbid fascination, but a sober reminder of the transitory nature of this world and a bold summons to Christian hope. We begin the month celebrating the saints in glory on the Solemnity of All Saints. On Nov. 2, we observe 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 rarely ponder these realities, they are inescapable for each of us. They remind us of the eternal destiny of joy that God has prepared for us in Christ and the eternal consequences of turning our back on God’s love. St. 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 purification. The ultimate rejection of divine love will mean eternal separation from God.
God has made us for heaven, where we will enjoy the perfect fulfillment of all human longing in supreme and eternal happiness. We are called to this blessedness. We are summoned to be saints. We cannot even begin to imagine the joy God has prepared for us in heaven. The bible uses images such as a wedding banquet to offer us a glimpse of the joy and happiness of heaven. We know that in heaven we will enjoy perfect communion in love with the most Holy Trinity and all of the angels and saints. Jesus has opened the gates of heaven for us by his death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead.
At the other end of the spectrum is the frightful rejection of love, 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 cannot violate our freedom and force us 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 yet perfected in love, are assured of salvation, but they must undergo further purification from the effects of their sins. Only then can we bear the weight of heavenly glory and enter into the presence of God. After we die, we can no longer help ourselves. While we still are able to do so, we ought to make satisfaction for the sins by fervent prayer, penance and almsgiving. With the proper dispositions we also can obtain indulgences from the Church for partial or full remittance of the temporal punishment due to our sins.
The process of purification that continues beyond 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 with 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 Eucharist. We remember the faithful departed in the Eucharistic prayer of every Mass. But, we also have the opportunity to request that Masses be offered for our departed 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 to be always 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 remembrance at Masses as well as by other local customs. In many cultures it is the day set aside for the wonderful 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, that is, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.