Perhaps you’ve had the experience: a friend dies, and then there’s neither funeral nor burial service, but there is a “Celebration of Life” at a later date.
There is surely nothing wrong with celebrating someone’s life. It honors that person and may edify us to recall with others the good things this friend said or did. But somehow, barring extraordinary circumstances, this doesn’t seem to do justice to the great event. The whole purpose of life is union with God in love. This person’s life is over. The time of probation is ended. He or she has gone to Judgment, and is either in Purgatory, Heaven, or Hell.
Years ago, Bishop Sheen wrote about this awesome moment, what is in the Dies Irae called “The Day of Wrath”: “God will not so much judge us as we will judge ourselves. Our conscience will speak and say: ‘I am the conscience God gave you! Behold thyself in it as a mirror.’” In another article he writes: “The soul will stand naked before God as it truly is… If it is not clothed with virtue, it will feel ashamed… There shall then be only me that sinned, that gave to the poor, that prayed, or that blasphemed… There will be no attorneys to plead the case… It will be the voice of conscience which will reveal ourselves as we really are. We will thus be our own witness and our own judge.” God will ratify this judgment.
We don’t know, for sure, where the deceased is now. Even if he committed suicide, or fell away from the faith, we don’t know his culpability, or if he thought, “Oh God, what have I done? Forgive me!” just before he died.
Therefore, it seems fitting that we should honor that person by attending his funeral and offering up prayers, or having Masses said, for his soul. If this person is in Heaven or Hell, our prayers will not affect his fate. However, if he is in Purgatory, our prayers can help! Job (Job 1:5) offers sacrifices for the sins of his sons. In 2 Maccabees 12:45-6 we read: “Therefore, he (Judas Maccabeus) made atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin.” St. John Chrysostom said “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of Rime of the Ancient Mariner, has written on his tombstone:
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
In Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgment, a figure is shown pulling two souls up into Heaven with a rosary. It is an apt visual metaphor. Praying for the dead is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
It is natural to fear death. In his book The Mystery of Death and Beyond, by Fr. Kenneth Baker, he writes: “Human beings fear death for different reasons. Those who have a bad conscience loaded with many mortal sins, especially if they have lived a life of self-indulgence and have failed to pray and worship God, usually have an intense fear of death. That is a good thing for them, since it may move them to accept God’s grace of repentance and seek reconciliation with God by having true sorrow for their sins and by making a good confession.”
On the other hand, there are holy people such as St. Therese of Lisieux, who, on her deathbed at 24 years old, seemed to have no fear and said, “I am not dying; I am entering life.”
In these days when many plan for retirement, it makes sense to do some post-retirement planning --- to plan for eternal life. How do we do that? By dying to oneself! Fr. Baker says: “The main way of preparing ourselves for death is to lead a life of virtue, to obey God’s Ten Commandments, to strive to do God’s will at all times. This can be summed up in Jesus’ basic command to love God and one’s neighbor. In order to remain faithful and to overcome evil temptations which all are subject to, it is essential to pray daily, to practice some self-denial, and to be generous to those in need.”
Lent is the time of the year to review our post-retirement plan and make the changes that will prepare us for the next life. Lent begins this year on March 2. Now is a good time to start making Lenten resolutions.
Please help the station by telling others, offering to volunteer, placing schedules in your parish’s information rack, through your prayers or a financial contribution if possible. Thank you!
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
P.S. Sources: The Mystery of Death and Beyond by Fr. Kenneth Baker, and After This Life, by Fr. Benedict Groeschel.