Sunday, November 22, 2020

All Saints?


(Christ the King (A): This homily was given on the weekend of November 22, 2020 at St. Mary’s Church, Carolina, R.I., and St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I., and St. Pius X, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 34:11-17; Psalm 23:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Matthew 25:31-46.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christ the King 2020]


One day many years ago, I stopped at a church in East Providence to make a holy hour.  I was on my day off.  When I walked into the church, I happened to notice that there were several pieces of poster board lining the inner walls of the building.  On each of them there were a dozen or so photographs—mostly of elderly people.  Since this was in November (a month when we’re especially encouraged to pray for the dead) I asked the woman who was there cleaning the church, “Are these the pictures of deceased parishioners?”  She said, “Yes.”  Now, in and of itself, putting up pictures of the deceased was a nice, loving gesture; but what tarnished it all was the heading on each poster.  Above the pictures were the words, “All Saints” in large letters.  Why was that a problem?  Because it implied that we know for an absolute fact that each person on the poster is now in heaven!  And we don’t know that, only God does.  We may have a confident hope about it, but that’s as far as we can go—unless the people in question get canonized by the Church.

“Fr. Ray, you’re nitpicking.”  No, I’m not.  First of all, a gesture like this (well-intentioned though it might be) ultimately gives birth to the idea that everyone goes to heaven, even unrepentant sinners.  That idea, by the way, is called apokatastasis, and it was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople in the mid-sixth century!  To believe that even unrepentant sinners are saved in the end is heresy. 

Secondly, calling all deceased people saints can very easily foster immorality.  How so?  Well, think about it for a moment, if someone really believes that all people go to heaven after death—no questions asked—that person might end up saying to himself, “Why should I bother praying?  Why should I go to Mass or Confession?  Why should I try to keep the Ten Commandments and reach out to those in need?  If everyone goes to heaven anyway, what does it matter?” 

It’s like saying to every player in the National Football League, “Guys, listen up.  At the end of the year, we intend to give every single one of you a Super Bowl ring, and a winner’s check.  It doesn’t matter if your team is 15-1 or 1-15 during the regular season; it doesn’t matter how well you play as an individual; it doesn’t even matter if you break all the rules—when it’s over, we’ll declare you all winners.”  Now I ask you, my brothers and sisters, if that’s what they were told by the commissioner before the season began, how hard do you think those players would play during the year?  What kind of effort would they put forth on the field each Sunday?  Let me tell you: if I were one of those players, I’d say to myself, “What’s the point in lifting weights, doing wind sprints, practicing plays, and letting my body get beat up for the next six months?  I’ll just take it easy, do whatever I feel like doing, and pick up my ring and check in February.”  Along these lines, here’s something Bishop Sheen wrote many years ago:

There would be no fun in playing games unless there were a chance to lose.  There would be no zest in battle if crowns of merit rested suspended over those who do not fight.  There would be no interest in drama if the characters were puppets.  And there would be no point to life unless there were great and eternal destinies at stake, in which we may say Aye or Nay to our eternal salvation. (Preface to Religion, page 129.)

Today we live in a world where many people—especially many young people—DO think that life is dull and meaningless!  That’s why some of them despair and why some go so far as to commit suicide.  I wonder: is part of the cause of this our desire to make things too easy for them?  Some of us don’t want to offend our youth, so we never talk to them about hell, we never tell them there’s something at stake in the way they live their lives on this earth.  We convey to them the idea that God is a big creampuff in the sky, and that heaven is guaranteed; consequently they come away with the notion that life is meaningless—that it doesn’t matter how they live, or even if they choose to live.

This is one reason why more people need to read the Bible—specifically passages in the New Testament like the one we heard a few moments ago from Matthew 25.  This, of course, is the famous scene of the Last Judgment, where Jesus comes in glory to separate the sheep from the goats.  From this passage alone it’s crystal clear that what we do and don’t do on this earth has consequences—eternal consequences!  “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”  But this is not the only text of Scripture in which we’re urged to live our faith in very practical, radical ways.  In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says, “Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.”  Then we have Hebrews 12:14 where the sacred author tells us to “Strive for that holiness without which no one can see the Lord.”  Those are just two of many other New Testament passages which convey this truth to us.

In this homily I’ve said that calling all deceased people “saints” can lead to the mistaken idea that unrepentant sinners go to heaven, and that it can foster immorality.  But there is one other important reason why we should never do it: it ultimately harms the souls in purgatory—the very ones who need our help!  Why?  Because if we buy into the idea that everyone who dies goes immediately into God’s eternal Kingdom, then we won’t pray for the dead, and the souls in purgatory will suffer the consequences.  They won’t benefit from our prayers, because we won’t offer any.  We’ll mistakenly believe they aren’t necessary.

Here we need to be reminded of something St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan saint, once said: “Do you wish to prove your love towards your dead?  Do you wish to send them a most precious help and golden key to heaven?  [Then] receive communion often for the repose of their souls.”

I said at the beginning that putting up pictures of the deceased during the month of November was a nice, loving gesture on the part of the priests and parishioners of that church in East Providence, but that calling them “All Saints” tarnished their effort.  Of course, if they ever decide to put up pictures of the deceased in the future, there is one, simple thing they could do to remove the tarnish: they could change the title on each poster from “All Saints” to “All Souls.”  That would make it theologically correct, and it would encourage people to pray daily for the souls of all the faithful departed.  Not only that, it would also make some of the men and women on the posters (the ones who are in purgatory right now) extremely grateful and extremely happy.