IT WILL MAKE A MAN OUT OF HIM: A HOMILY ON THE COMMEMORATION OF THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED, BY FR. HENRY NWOKORO CSsR, IBADAN
A story is told of a man who wanted his son to become a soldier, because he felt his son was not strong enough. His son, however hated the idea of becoming a soldier and he would always ask his father, ‘Why do you want me to become a soldier’, to which his father will say ‘It will make a man out of you’. His father finally succeeded in forcing him into the millitary. After a week, he came back and told his father he could not continue with the training. His father still forced him back, saying ‘It will make a man out of you’. One day, his father died and he joyfully returned home. His sister had invited the priest so that they can plan for his father’s funeral mass. When the priest came, he wanted to speak privately with the priest. This was their conversation:
Son: I dont see any reason to have a funeral mass for my father. I think it is a waste of time and energy. It is better to just dig a grave and burry him.
Priest: Why would you say a thing like that?
Son: There is no need for prayers and mass. He is either in heaven or in hell. If he is in heaven, he doesnt need any prayers. If he is in hell, no amount of prayers will help him.’
Priest: ‘What if he is in purgatory?’.
Son: Well, let him stay there. It will make a man out of him.
Yesterday we celebrated all the saints. Today we celebrate all souls. The simple way of understanding the difference between yesterday and today is that yesterday, we celebrated those who are in heaven. Today we are praying for all those who have died. Even during our mass, the prayer of consecration always included honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the Apostles, the Martyrs and all the saints. After that, there is another prayer for all those who have died. The whole idea comes from the Catholic teaching on purgatory. There are many churches who claim they do not believe in purgatory, yet they pray for the dead. If there is no purgatory, then praying for the dead is pointless.
Our alternate first reading of today from Isaiah 25:6-9 speaks of the God in whom the dead hoped and the God who saves us. We all know that it is very difficult, though not impossible for someone to die in a state of perfection. We like to divide the world into good people and bad people. But the truth is that many people are good, though they still sin. Even those we consider bad, if we go very close to them we will see a lot of goodness. Even after our sins have been forgiven, there is still some purification that needs to be done so that we can be in the perfect state to see God. If there was no purgatory, then no matter how slight the imperfections we die with, we will still not go to heaven, since nothing imperfect can enter heaven. Therefore, purgatory is actually one of the great signs of God’s love and mercy, a God who is ready to help us even after our death.
That is why the second reading from Romans 5:5-11 tells us that our hope is not deceptive, because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has bee given to us. The Holy Spirit is the agent of God’s forgiveness. We can never talk about God without talking about love, because God is love. We are talking about a God who became one of us and died for us, not because we are good, but precisely because we are sinners. This love is what gives us hope and makes us trust in God, knowing that the fullness of redemption which He offers us through his death goes with us even after death.
One of the common misconceptions about purgatory is that it is a place where we can still obtain forgiveness after our death. That is not what purgatory means. Whenever we sin there are two things we need to consider. One is the sin itself and the other is the effect of the sin. If an alcoholic develops a kidney problem as a result and one day he stops drinking completely, even then, he still need to deal with the kidney problem which is the effect of his drinking, even though he has long stopped drinking. Repentance and forgiveness of sin is like when we stop drinking and our family and friends have forgiven us for what we did to them by drinking. Treating the kidney problem is purgatory. Sin alters the nature of our soul and there are two ways of ‘resetting’ the nature of our soul to its original state. One is by the good we do while on earth (fasting, mortification and works of charity) and the other is in purgatory. Therefore, by the good we do on earth, we can either shorten our stay in purgatory or do away with it completely.
Our Gospel of Mark chapters 15 and 16 brings us to the climax of our hope. They speak of the death and the resurection of Jesus respectively. When Jesus died, there was darkness, Jesus cried ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’. He was given vinegar to drink. He cried ‘It is finished’ and died. When our loved ones die, it can feel like a dark cloud has overshadowed us. We cry and we feel deserted, and food and drink that is meant to be sweet turns sour in our mouths and we start asking ‘What is life all about?’ Why does God allow such things to happen? In our hopelessness comes the greatest hope ever. When the women went to the tomb the third day, He has been raised from the dead. Just when it seemed that all hope was lost, He has risen. Our hope will not decieve us. Even when the person does not die in a perfect state, we still have a lifeline and this just shows that God will go to any length to make sure that we are saved.
So, when we think of our loved one who has died, let us not presume that he is saved just because we consider him a good person. Let us not rush into saying we are sure he is in heaven. Also, even when we have reasons to believe he did not live a good life, let us not condemn him to hell. God’s mercy is beyond our imagination. That is why we celebrate funeral masses for the dead and we continue to pray for them. If he is in heaven, our prayers will be helpful to those who need it. If he is in hell, our prayers will be helpful to those who need it. Perhaps he is in purgatory and ‘God will make A SAINT out of him’.