As we enter the month of November, we should consider the importance of remembering and praying for the dead. We begin with two notable liturgical celebrations--All Saints and All Souls days. St. Paul reminds us ". . . Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." (Phil. 3:20)
Saints are destined for heaven. Once their lives are finished on earth they will spend eternity enjoying the Beatific Vision--the "Face" of God--in God's time and according to God's plan. Many saints will not be officially canonized and placed on the church calendar. However, the Solemnity of All Saints reminds us of all those intercessors in heaven closely united with God who pray for us. (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 956) Where they have gone, we hope to follow someday. They have been called the Church Triumphant. Just as we may ask a friend here on earth to say a prayer for us, we can ask the saints in heaven to pray to God for us. Once they reach heaven, they no longer need our prayers but they can certainly pray and make intercession on our behalf.
While we may hope that our deceased relatives and friends are in heaven, we do not have that absolute certainty simply because of our hoping or desiring it to be so. While our Christian funerals are meant to strengthen our hope in eternal life, they are not meant to be canonizations. Only God knows the ultimate destiny of any soul as he alone knows the disposition of the person when he or she dies. Did the person die in the state of grace or not? We can only hope and pray. We should pray.
Still, we can take great consolation if a person receives the last rites of the church-- the sacraments of Penance and Reconciliation, the Holy Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick. I remind people constantly that the sacraments are for the living and we should not wait until a person dies (if at all possible) to call for the priest. If the person is homebound, elderly, on hospice, in the hospital, terminally ill, etc. let the priest know so that a pastoral visit can be arranged. Moreover, we should all try to be living continually in the state of grace and not be conscious of any mortal or serious sin. The sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (confession) is the ordinary means that we have to keep the fullness of God's life (grace) alive in us. God's mercy will be given if we but ask for it!
All Souls Day reminds us that we should pray for the dead. Our prayers can help them if they are in a state of purification that we call purgatory. Remember that if someone is in heaven, they do not need our prayers. If they die not in the state of grace, being unrepentant, obstinate, and alienated from God--thus being in a state of hell or eternal separation from God--our prayers cannot help them. Church teaching encourages us to pray and to offer Mass for the dead. The greatest spiritual gift that we can give to our deceased loved ones is to have a Mass offered for them. The Catholic Mass is a re-presentation of the offering of Jesus himself on the cross. We have no better intercessor with the Father than Jesus who suffered and died for us.
Souls in purgatory, in a state of cleansing or purification--what I like to refer to as the fringes of heaven--can pray for us as we can assist them on their eventual journey to heaven. They have been referred to as the Church Suffering, in regard to their temporarily being kept from the fullness of heaven.
Finally, members of the Church on earth are saints-in-potential. As baptized Christians, part of the Body of Christ, while we are alive in Christ Jesus, our ultimate destiny is heaven. Only our choice to sin gravely, to put ourselves out of the state of God's life, His grace, will keep us from that path. We are the Church Militant, currently battling sin and evil. "So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones [saints] and members of the household of God. . . ." (Eph. 2:19)
May we live up to our calling!
Fr. Ed Namiotka