One hundred years ago today, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the Germans and Allies signed the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I, which left 37 million dead in its wake. It was the deadliest conflict in this history of Christendom. In response, Pope Benedict XV directed that all priests throughout the world would offer one of their three Masses on All Souls Day (Nov. 2) each year for the souls of those who had died.
November is the month when the Church invites us to consider our own mortality. We started the month by celebrating those who have fought the good fight and finished the race – all the saints in Heaven. But the very next day, the vestments at Mass shifted radically from white to black as we commemorated and prayed for all the faithful departed. We get a hint of this in the readings at Holy Mass today. We see a widow and her son who face death from starvation. And we read in the Book of Hebrews about how our own death precedes the judgment – both the particular judgment that each of us will face at the end of our earthly lives, and the general judgment, when Christ “will appear a second time … to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him.”
During this month of November, Holy Mother Church asks us to be particularly solicitous for the poor souls in purgatory. Purgatory is not something that we hear a lot about any more. Even within the Church, we seem to have absorbed society’s error of universalism – believing that everyone who is a “good person” goes straight to Heaven. But in doing so, we commit a dangerous error. If we fail to form our children, grandchildren and others in this time-honored tradition of praying and doing penance for the poor souls, who will there be to do so for us when we die? And how long will we languish in purgatory as a result?
We call the souls in purgatory the “poor souls” not because of their lack of money, but because of their total dependence on us to help them along their journey to Heaven. The poor souls can do nothing for themselves. They are being purified by God, being made ready to enjoy the brilliant light of His face in Heaven, but our prayers and sacrifices can assist them in being even more open to the healing power of God’s grace and by taking upon ourselves the just consequences of sin. Think about this: If you help a soul escape from purgatory, you will have a new best friend in Heaven who will become a powerful intercessor for you there.
What, then, can we do for these poor souls? Following the example of Pope Benedict XV after World War I, the best we can do for any of the poor souls is to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – the Body and Blood of Christ – for them. You can do this by requesting a Mass intention for that person – perhaps on the anniversary of his or her death – but also by yourself attending Holy Mass and offering your worthy reception of Holy Communion for them. Our own private prayers can also assist the poor souls – the rosary, time spent in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, visiting our Eucharistic Lord here in church throughout the week, or just carving out time in your busy day for that which is more important than any human activity.
We can also assist the poor souls by our sacrifices. This is probably the most overlooked way of helping the poor souls and just generally growing in our own spiritual lives. By fasting from food, drink, or other pleasures of the flesh, or simply from our own preferences, desires, or natural inclinations, we purify ourselves from our attachments to the things of this world and profess our faith that the life to come is more important still. We also accompany Christ in His suffering for us, drawing near to Him and allowing Him to by our greatest consolation amidst suffering.
Another excellent way to help the poor souls is by earning indulgences. An indulgence is when the Church, because of the mission given to Her by Christ to bind and loose, uses the treasury of merit built up by Christ and the saints to release souls from either part or all of their time in purgatory. The Church designates certain indulgenced acts as “partial,” meaning that they remit a portion of one’s time in purgatory,” and others as “plenary,” meaning that, if done with a complete detachment from even venial sin, they remit the entirety of a person’s time in purgatory and win them direct admittance to Heaven. To obtain an indulgence, we must perform the indulgenced act (like visiting a certain church, saying certain prayers, etc.), receive sacramental Communion on the same day, pray for the intentions of the Holy Father, and go to Confession within a week (before or after). (If you are interested in learning more about indulgences you can find more information with the text of this sermon on our parish website). An example of an indulgenced prayer is the rosary. If you pray it in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, or if you pray it anywhere with a group of people, it can be a plenary indulgence. If you pray it on your own outside church, it qualifies for a partial indulgence.
This month of November is not only a chance to pray for the faithful departed, but also an important time to remember your own mortality. In the first reading and the Gospel today, we hear two stories about two widows who were willing to trust God by giving Him absolutely everything they had. There were no pension plans, 401ks, and social security in those days. Their total reliance on God is in large part about being ready for death. By giving everything to Him, they have purified themselves of their attachments to things of this world and are unencumbered in their pursuit of Heaven.
As a priest, I celebrate a good deal of funerals. Many funerals are a beautiful opportunity to unite a family in prayer and rejoice in God’s mercy. Even in times of tragedy, the ancient rites of the Church provide solace to a grieving family. The difficult funerals, really, are not the ones where someone has died young, tragically, or unexpectedly; they are the ones where the family of the deceased just doesn’t get it.
Many of us have absorbed some really problematic notions about what a funeral is all about. We hear funerals referred to as a “celebration of life.” Celebrating the life of a loved one, particularly the many graces her or she received from God, is a good thing to do, but it is not the point of a funeral. The point of the funeral Mass is to pray, most particularly, to offer a sacrifice for the deceased person – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – and to be consoled by God’s word and the other beautiful rites provided by Holy Mother Church. This is why eulogies are out of place at a funeral Mass – because they would distract us from the essential task at hand: pleading with God for mercy for the deceased person’s soul.
Even more disturbing, though, is a trend to skip the funeral Mass all together. This usually happens because the family of the deceased is no longer practicing the Catholic faith that their mother and father so lovingly tried to instill in them. There is also frequently an idea that having a simple service at the funeral home or a short graveside service will be easier on the family instead of drawing out the process. The problem, though, is that even on a human level, people lose the opportunity to grieve for their loved one (not to mention the loss of graces for the soul of the departed because of not having a proper funeral Mass).
A similarly distressing trend is the increasing tendency to forgo the burial of a person’s remains after cremation or to delay their internment for one reason or another. This is disrespectful of the human body, which was consecrated to God by the sacraments and destined to return to Him in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. This trend is one of the many reasons for which the Church does not look favorably upon the practice of cremation (even if She does tolerate it in certain instances). We profess every Sunday in the Creed that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, that at the end of time Christ will raise our mortal bodies to join our souls in their eternal destiny. The human body has been sanctified by Christ Himself sharing in our human nature and has become for us a means of receiving precious sacramental graces. Cremation is simply not a good profession of that faith. It obscures the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead and the dignity of the human body. (You can find more information on the Church’s teaching on cremation on our parish website with the text of this sermon.)
If you are getting to be advanced in years – especially if your adult children do not practice their Catholic faith – talk to your children about your wishes for what will happen to your body after you die. Make it abundantly clear that you want a proper funeral Mass and that you want your body to await the hope of the resurrection in a proper resting place. Many people choose to plan their own funeral, carefully considering the scripture readings, the music, and so forth. I have seen this be a great relief to families who are glad to have one less decision to make during a difficult time. I am always very happy to help those who would like to do their loved ones this favor.
You do not have to be actively dying to benefit from considering the reality of death. The Diocese requires that all priests have funeral arrangements on file, so I planned my funeral at the age of 30. It felt odd, but it was a good reminder that none of us know the day nor the hour when our time on this earth will be complete. All of us are called to live like that widow who gave the prophet Elijah her last bit of bread and oil to eat, risking starvation for herself and her son. Totally relying on God, she was ready for whatever would come – even death.
In this month of November, we should take this opportunity to consider our own mortality – the inevitability of bodily death – as well as to rededicate ourselves to assisting those who have already passed on from this life. In the funeral Mass, we pray that, “for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.” By our prayers and sacrifices, we can help the poor souls reach that eternal dwelling, where they will thank us with the heavenly intercession of the saints.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXXII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVIII
More information on the authentic Catholic teaching on cremation: https://www.stjohncatholic.com/single-post/2018/11/10/What-the-Church-Teaches-on-Cremation
More information on indulgences: https://www.catholic.org/prayers/indulgc.php