Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why a Priest Will Mention Purgatory in a Funeral Homily

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 23, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 9:30-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fifth Sunday 2012]


After a recent funeral, a couple of people asked me why I mentioned purgatory in my homily.  Now please do not misunderstand, these post-funeral questioners were not angry or combative; they were simply curious—and somewhat confused.  You see, in their minds their recently-deceased friend was a good, caring, faith-filled person; consequently they thought that I should have focused my remarks exclusively on heaven.

They really didn’t see the need to mention purgatory, since, from their perspective, their deceased friend couldn’t possibly be anywhere other than in God’s eternal kingdom.

Now there were several problems with their line of reasoning, not the least of which was that it violated a command of Jesus Christ: the command not to judge!

When we hear Jesus say, “Stop judging, that you may not be judged,” we usually interpret that to mean, “Don’t condemn another person to hell in your mind or heart.”  And that’s right; that’s definitely a valid way to interpret our Lord’s words.   But it’s also only half the story.  Jesus is also warning us here against “judging” others in the opposite way, by personally declaring them to be in the kingdom of heaven.  No, we should never condemn another person to hell, but neither should we presume that they’re going to heaven immediately when they die; nor should we presume that our deceased relatives and friends have already passed through the pearly gates.

The Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has the power to canonize people; we, as individuals, do not.

We can speak of our hope that our deceased relatives and friends have already arrived; we can express a very confident hope that they’ve already made it into the kingdom of heaven.  But we must never say “we know,” because we don’t (unless, of course, they’ve been canonized; then we do know).

And this is precisely why we pray for the dead!  We pray for the dead because we realize that some people die in the state of grace—in friendship with God—but are not quite ready to see the Lord face to face.  They don’t have any mortal sins on their souls when they leave this life, but they may still have some venial sins that they need to be forgiven for, and they may still have some sinful attitudes that they need to get rid of.

Or they may need to make reparation for some of their already-forgiven sins.

It says in the Book of Revelation, chapter 21, that “nothing unclean will enter [heaven].”  NOTHING!  That means you’re not ready for heaven, even if you have just one, little, unforgiven venial sin on your soul—or just a teeny, tiny bit of anger or pride or lust or some other sinful attitude in your heart.

In Hebrews, chapter 12, we are told to “Strive for that holiness . . . without which no one can see the Lord”—indicating that we need to attain a certain level of holiness before we can experience the beatific vision.  Basically, that holiness needs to be attained in this life (meaning that we need to die in Christ, in the state of grace); but some of that holiness can be attained after death, which is what Jesus was getting at when he said in Matthew 12: 32 that some sins can be forgiven “in the age to come.”

So even though—as many Protestants like to tell us—the word “purgatory” is not found in the Bible, the truth about purgatory and about the need for a final purification after death is clearly present in the Sacred Scriptures.  One of the most important passages in this regard is found in 1 Corinthians 3, where St. Paul says that some people who have lived mediocre Christian lives will be saved, but they will first need to pass through “fire”—hence one of the ways purgatory is sometimes described is as a “holy fire.”

It’s not the destructive fire of hell; rather, it’s a fire that purifies us and cleanses us and makes us radiant with God’s grace.

The need for purgatory is illustrated quite well by the apostles in today’s gospel story from Matthew 9.  It says there that when they arrived at their destination in Capernaum Jesus asked them a question.  He said, “What were you arguing about on the way?”

They were fighting, of course, about who was the greatest; about who was “numero uno” among them.

Now I ask you, if these men had died of natural causes at that precise moment, would they have been ready to pass through the pearly gates of heaven?

I don’t think so!  They clearly had some pride in their hearts—and perhaps a little arrogance and self-centeredness as well.

All of that would have needed to have been washed away, before they could have entered the Lord’s eternal kingdom.

And so it is for many—perhaps most—souls after death.

Which is why I mention purgatory in every funeral homily I preach!  Every deacon, priest or bishop should. 

I think that some people react negatively when purgatory is mentioned because they think that purgatory is a bad thing, and that the priest is implying something negative about their deceased relative or friend by making reference to it.

But it’s not a bad thing!  It’s a great thing.  Remember, the people in purgatory are saved; their salvation is secured;  they’re on their way to heaven, and there’s no possibility of them ever going to hell.

They just need to be cleaned up a bit before they meet the King of kings and the Lord of lords!  And the good news is that we can help them to pass through their purification process more quickly by our prayers, and sacrifices—and especially by having Masses offered for the repose of their souls (since the Mass is the most powerful prayer of all, given the fact that it’s the prayer of Christ himself).

Many of you I’m sure remember Monsignor Struck, who helped out here in his retirement years until he passed way in 1997.  Monsignor Jack Struck was one of the holiest people I’ve ever met in my life, but he always used to say, “When I die, all I want is to get through the back door of purgatory.”

He said that because he was holy and humble—and because he knew that if he got through the “back door” he was eventually going out the “front door” and into the eternal kingdom of heaven!

Let me conclude today by reading to you a small part of the Church’s official teaching about purgatory, which is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, beginning in paragraph 1030.  There we are told:  

All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. . . . The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire . . .

This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture [in the Old Testament Second Book of Maccabees].

From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.  The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.

So if I mention purgatory at the funeral Mass of one of your relatives or friends sometime in the near or distant future, please do not be confused or offended.  Remember, saying that they might be in purgatory is just another way of saying that they’re on their way to heaven.

But do remember to pray for them!—because if our loved ones are indeed in purgatory that’s what they want from us most!  Not words of praise, but rather prayers and sacrifices and Masses for their souls, so that they can get to that “front door of purgatory” more quickly.

“But, Fr. Ray, what if my relative or friend is already in heaven?”

Well, then the prayers you offer will go to help another needy soul.

No prayer for the dead is ever wasted.