Wednesday, November 01, 2006

All Saints Day, All Souls Day—And The Communion Of Saints

(All Saints Day 2006: This homily was given on November 1, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-14; Matthew 5: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Saints Day 2006]

The boss said to one of his employees, “John, do you believe in life after death?”

John replied, “Of course.”

The boss said, “Well, I’m really happy to hear that, because about an hour after you left work early yesterday to go to your grandmother’s funeral, she stopped in to see you!”

In the Nicene Creed, which we profess every Sunday and Holy Day, we proclaim our faith in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”. As Christians, we believe that there’s a life beyond this one, which our souls (and eventually our bodies) will experience when our time on this earth is over.

In that respect, we are all like John. (Hopefully, of course, we are NOT like him in his deviousness and dishonesty!)

This belief in eternal life is something which is at the very foundation of our Catholic faith. In fact, without it, living the Gospel has no ultimate purpose. St. Paul said it well in 1 Corinthians 15 when he wrote, “If the dead are not raised, then Christ was not raised; and if Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of men.” (1 Corinthians 15: 16-19)

At the beginning of each November, the Church rivets our attention on the reality of the resurrection and its importance by giving us two special feasts: the one we celebrate today (All Saints Day), and the one we celebrate tomorrow (All Souls Day).

Today we focus on those who have already arrived; on those who are already a part of the huge crowd that St. John saw in his vision of Revelation 7. These are the men and women who didn’t just hear the Beatitudes proclaimed in a church once or twice a year; these are the men and women who actually made the effort to live them! In the words of our first reading they “survived the time of great distress . . . and . . . washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”

Tomorrow, on the other hand, we will focus on those who are still on the way (so to speak): on those who died in the state of grace but now need some final purification before they can enter the Lord’s presence and see him face to face.

Another way to explain it is as follows:

Today we turn our attention to those who are already there (in the kingdom) and we say to them, “You pray for us.”

Tomorrow we will turn our attention to those who aren’t quite there yet and we will say to them, “We will pray for you—and so will the saints in heaven.”

All of this reminds us of something that we can easily forget. In addition to helping us remember that this life is not the only one, these two feasts remind us of the fact that all of God’s children are mysteriously and spiritually connected to one another (and that includes those children of the Lord who are no longer living among us on this earth!).

We call this doctrine—this belief that’s mentioned explicitly in the Apostles’ Creed—“the communion of saints”. Quoting the late Pope Paul VI, here’s how the Catechism explains it to us: “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers.” (CCC, 962)

This is a doctrine, incidentally, which has some very practical implications. We need to recall it whenever someone close to us dies—but especially when the relationship we had with the deceased person wasn’t a very good one.

We all know that death is a time of mourning (that’s obvious); but for many people death is also a time of guilt and regret: guilt because they offended their deceased relative or friend in some way and never made proper amends; regret because they didn’t do more to assist their deceased relative or friend in a time of need.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve had people come to me in the confessional—especially after a sudden and unexpected death—and say things like, “Father, I’m so angry and upset at myself. I never got to tell my father—my mother—my aunt—my coworker—that I was sorry. And now it’s too late; I can never make it right.” “Father, I could have done more to help my friend in his time of need, but I didn’t. I was selfish. Now he’s dead, and there’s nothing I can do to make amends.”

Not true! You see, the doctrine of the communion of saints tells us that the death of the body does not mean the death of the relationship. Please hear that: the death of the body does not mean the death of the relationship (provided the deceased died in the state of grace).

So yes, we may have failed our relative or friend in some way when they were alive on this earth—and that’s definitely something we need to seek God’s forgiveness for (if necessary in the sacrament of Confession). But if our relative or friend has gone either to heaven or to purgatory, our bond with them has not been severed! It still exists!

And so—depending on where they are—they can help us, or we can help them.

If they’re in heaven, for example, they can (and will) help us by their prayers—especially their prayers for our repentance and conversion. And, in the process, they will harbor no grudges or animosity against us for our sins against them (since none of that bad “stuff” can exist in God’s kingdom).

And if they’re in purgatory (which we must presume they are, unless they’ve been canonized by the Church), we can help them by the prayers we offer up, and the Masses we have said, and the personal sacrifices we make for the repose of their soul.

The communion of saints teaches us that those prayers and Masses and sacrifices will help them to get through purgatory and into heaven more quickly—and will make their prayers for us more effective while they’re still in the process of being purified.

I must admit, I didn’t know that last fact until I read it the other day in the Catechism. There in paragraph 958 it says, “Our prayer for [the dead] is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.”

So I ask you today: Did you leave something unsaid to a relative or friend who died in the recent or even in the far distant past? Did you fail them in some way?

Well, don’t despair! Rather, do something for them NOW: have a Mass said for the repose of their soul; say a Rosary or some other prayer for them every day (or at least every once in a while). You might even fast on occasion from something—or make some other personal sacrifice—so that their soul will get into heaven more quickly.

Your relative or friend will certainly know what you’re doing for them, and they will be pleased.

They will also be blessed—and deeply grateful.

And when you join them in heaven someday (God willing), they will probably give you a really big hug, and say thank you.