All Souls Day – 2003

Fr. Charles Irvin

Isaiah 25:6-9; Romans 8:31-35,37-39; John 11:17-27

[Note to homilists: For this Mass you may choose from a wide range of scripture passages. I have chosen the above]

The way a question is asked sets the direction in which one goes in pursuit of an answer.  It shapes the quest. It also determines the end point, the question’s finality. One must be careful, then, in how one asks a question.

To ask “Where is Purgatory” is to presume that it is a location, a place one can find in space and time, in the physical universe in which we have our existence. Do we expect, then, to find Purgatory in our galaxy or in some other distant galaxy? Probably not.  The Church does not speak of Purgatory as a place. Check the Catechism of the Catholic Church if you don’t believe me.

Pope John Paul II, on a number of occasions, has spoken of Purgatory as a state of being, a condition in which we find ourselves. It has to do with the status of our relationship with God, a concept quite different than thinking Purgatory to be a place somewhere out there in the cosmos.

The better way to phrase the question is “What do we mean by Purgatory?” “How” questions and “where” questions call for technological or spatial answers. “Why” questions and questions dealing with purpose and meaning call for theological answers.

When you stand back and look that the grand sweep presented to us in the bible you will see a theme that runs throughout the entire history of our salvation, namely the fact that God is continually giving us another chance. God is continually starting over. The Book of Genesis, for instance, has not one but three creation stories, the story of Noah and his Ark being the third and most dramatic of them all.

And as for God’s covenant in which he pledges himself to be our God so we can be his people? That covenant is renewed over and over again throughout the long story of the bible. 

Praying for the dead connects us with the entire human communion in which we find ourselves. It’s a statement that we not only belong to each other but that we can care for each other. It’s a statement that we all have aspects in our hearts and souls that need to be purged out of us so that we can be more crystalline and transparent in revealing the Light of God that has been created in us when we were brought into being. It is also a statement that death cannot forever separate us from each other. Life is merely changed, not ended.

It is God’s will that everyone be saved. In theology this is referred to as “the universal salvific will of God.” The Second Vatican Council tells us that after the Fall of Adam and Eve God “ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, in order to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation.” [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Chapter 1, paragraph 3] This reflects what St. Paul was teaching us in his Letter to the Romans.

Is the purging away of all that hinders our full union with God a purging that is ended when we pass from this earth? Or can that purging process be something that might need to continue for those who have passed over into the next life? Christians, from the earliest times, have believed the latter is the case.

We need to note that Lazarus got a second chance. He died, was raised from the dead, and then died again. We shouldn’t miss the point that we, too, will get a second chance. Lazarus, after all, stands for all of us. God’s saving action for him is a prelude to God’s saving action for us. Death cannot defeat God’s saving love for us. The raising of Lazarus from the dead isn’t simply a medical miracle – it’s a theological statement, an epiphany of what God is doing and will be doing for those of us who love Jesus as Lazarus did.

The notion of Purgatory is another way of saying that we not only have faith, we have hope. If ever God offers us hope it is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and the faith response of the Church in calling us to pray for all souls who have passed over from this life into the next. We pray for the dead because we hope. We hope not only for them but we offer ourselves and others around us the gift of hope. Hope is one of the greatest gifts that Christians can give to those around us who think that they live hopeless lives in a hopeless world. The Christian virtue of hope real because the resurrection of Christ is real and because his stupendous miracles are real.

Praying for the dead is not, as some claim, senseless. Praying for the dead is something that has been done by the Communion of Saints from the very beginning of Christianity. Praying for the dead is a statement of faith, of hope and of love. Paying attention to the crippled, the lame, the blind, the oppressed, those cast aside and those forgotten was at the very heart of Christ’s ministry. In all that he did and in all that he said, he was always drawing us to the forgotten, the left out, and those whom the world has cast aside. Praying for the dead is at the very heart of all that Jesus Christ was all about.

Should we not, with Christ, lift them up before the eyes of God our Father? Should we not ask our Father in heaven to receive their souls in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ?

Where Lazarus is poor no longer, may all the souls of the faithful departed rest in God’s peace.