Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Catholic Church’s Teaching on Death and Judgment

(This homily was given on November 1, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12a.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Saints 2009]

On Sunday, October 18th, my Aunt Louise passed away. She was 88, the last living child of my paternal grandparents. Their 3 other children—my dad, my Uncle Mike and my Aunt Anna—had all died at relatively young ages of cancer.

The funeral for my aunt was on Thursday morning at my home parish, Holy Angels, in Barrington; her wake was Wednesday evening.

On Wednesday night I stayed with my sister and her family in Barrington. Well, about a half hour after we arrived at her house after the wake, the telephone rang. It was my cousin in Georgia, telling us that my Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother, had just been taken to the hospital.

Twenty minutes later, my cousin Jay called back to say that my Uncle Joe had died.

They were my godparents. I lost them both within the span of four days.

My Aunt Louise’s health had been deteriorating for a long time, so her passing was not unexpected, but my Uncle Joe was the picture of health until the Monday before his death, when he was taken to the hospital after passing out in a hardware store. They gave him a battery of tests, adjusted his medication, told him they thought he’d be fine, and sent him home. That was Tuesday.

He collapsed on Wednesday night, ironically enough, while routinely taking his blood pressure. He slumped over and never regained consciousness.

He was 78.

And my doctor wonders why I don’t like having my blood pressure taken!

Sooner or later, what happened to my aunt and uncle will happen to each of us. And so in November, toward the end of the liturgical year, the Church gives us two important days that remind us of the end of our earthly lives: the Solemnity of All Saints (which we celebrate this weekend), and the Feast of All Souls on November 2nd.

Since this is the case, I thought it would be good today to review briefly the Catholic Church’s teaching on death and judgment. Many Catholics are confused about these issues, which is to some extent understandable. Protestant evangelists who speak about such things as ‘the rapture’ and a literal ‘thousand year reign of Christ on earth’ have dominated the airwaves for years; consequently many Catholics think that the Church teaches these and similar doctrines, when in reality she does not.

The Church’s teaching on death and judgment is really quite simple and straightforward. It’s also solidly rooted in Sacred Scripture.

It begins by recognizing the truth that Jesus Christ suffered, died and rose from the dead, giving us the hope of eternal life. As the Catechism puts it in paragraph 1010: “Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. [St. Paul said in Philippians 1,] ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ [And in another passage of the Bible he wrote,] ‘The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him.’”

That’s really the same message that St. John has for us in today’s second reading when he says, “We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

But in order to pass from what we are now to “what we shall be,” we have to die. And by the way, we only die once, as it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 9. Reincarnation is not a Christian teaching. We do not come back to this life as Fido or Flipper or anything else—or anyONE else for that matter!

So what exactly happens at death?

Well, the Catholic Church believes that (and here I quote the Catechism, paragraph 1022) ”each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately—or immediate and everlasting damnation.” At death, in other words, our souls are separated from our bodies; we are then judged in a “particular judgment” and our souls go either to heaven, hell or purgatory. Those in purgatory go to heaven whenever their purification is complete.

This, incidentally, is why we pray for all deceased people who are not canonized saints. If they’re canonized saints they don’t need our prayers; they’ve already arrived in heaven. We know that because there have been at least two verified miracles which have been attributed to their heavenly intercession.

There are many people in heaven, of course, who are not canonized saints (Hopefully some of our relatives and friends are among them; we honor these men and women today on this Solemnity of All Saints; they’re the people St. John saw in his vision in today’s first reading). But we should never presume our deceased relatives and friends are already there unless they’re canonized, because if we do presume they’re already in heaven, and they are, in fact, still in purgatory, we will be depriving them of the Masses and prayers and helps they need to pass through their purification more quickly.

Purgatory, by the way, is not a “second chance after death.” Souls in purgatory are saved—they died in the state of grace—but they need some final purification before they can come into the presence of the one, true, perfectly-holy God. (These are the “souls” we pray for in a special way on November 2nd, All Souls Day.)

Chapter 21 of the book of Revelation reminds us that nothing unclean can enter God’s kingdom. Nothing! This means that if we die with even one, little venial sin on our soul, we will need purgatory! Hopefully now you understand why the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said, “Strive for that holiness without which no one can see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12: 14)

I think it’s safe to say that most people who end up in heaven pass through purgatory. Msgr. Struck used to say that all he wanted to do was to get in the back door of purgatory! Because he knew that if he got in the back door, he’d eventually go out the ‘front door’ and into heaven!

The Catholic Church also believes that, as the Apostles’ Creed says, “Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” at the end of time. When this will be, no one knows (so please tell your Jehovah’s Witness friends to stop trying to figure it out!).

However—and here’s something many Catholics might not be aware of—according to the teaching of the Church “before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers.” So says the Catechism in paragraph 675. This will involve some sort of “religious deception” orchestrated by the individual referred to in Scripture as “the Antichrist.”

The second coming of Christ will then take place; “this passing world” will be brought to an end by God's direct intervention; followed by the resurrection of all the dead and the Last Judgment.

It’s at this point that our souls will finally be reunited with our bodies. Then, as it says in Matthew 25, the damned “will go away into eternal punishment, [and] the righteous into eternal life.”

Purgatory will cease to exist, since no one else will need to pass through it.

That’s what we all have to look forward to. And it is something to look forward to—if we have faith, and are striving each day to live the Beatitudes that we heard in today’s gospel.

Let me close now with this thought:

Jack Fox from our parish is fond of saying, “Always make sure of two things: that you’re in the state of grace and that you have your insurance paid. If you do those two things, you’ll be ready to take the ‘deep six’ whenever the Good Lord calls you.”

If you ask me, that’s pretty good advice. This is why it’s so important to go to confession regularly! And if you have to pick one or the other, my advice is to forget about the insurance, just make sure you’re in the state of grace—that’s infinitely (and I do mean INFINITELY) more important!