Praying for the Faithful Departed with Christian Hope, All Souls Day, November 2, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
The Commemoration of All The Faithful Departed, All Souls’ Day
November 2, 2013
2 Macc 12:38-46, Ps 25, 1 Thess 4:13-18, Lk 23:33.39-43


To listen to an audio recording of this Mass, please click below: 


The following points were attempted in the homily:

  • Today we come together to fulfill the sweetest of all the spiritual works of mercy, which is to pray for the dead. With Catholics throughout the world, we commemorate all the faithful departed — those who died earlier today, the beloved deceased members of our families, the victims of war, violence and genocide, those who have died of hunger, disease and neglect, the infants who have died in miscarriages or who have been killed through exposure or abortion, the Christians who have died for the faith in persecution, the anonymous who rest in common graves, those forgotten by the world and whose names are known only by God. The Church remembers the faithful departed not just on this day but throughout the entire month of November in a special way. We begin the month, as we did yesterday, by celebrating the saints — those who are definitively in heaven, the canonized and un-canonized saints — and by invoking their intercession as we continue on our pilgrimage of faith in this world. But then we immediately turn in suffrage for all those who have died who long to share in the communion of the saints but who are not yet experiencing their joy. To pray for the dead is the main purpose of this All Souls Day. We pray for the dead because we know in faith three truths: first, contrary to the popular heresy that presumes that everyone who dies goes to a “better place,” the Catholic faith does not believe everyone who dies goes to heaven, especially immediately; second, the dead may need our help; and third our prayers and sacrifices can in fact help them. Let’s examine more deeply these three truths of faith.
  • First, the Church teaches that to enter heaven, one must be completely attached to God and radically detached from all sin and everything that is not of God. “Nothing unclean shall enter heaven,” the Book of Revelation tells us (Rev. 21:27). There are many who do not live and die with that type of purity of life and hence they need to be purified to enter into the kingdom in which God is all in all. This state in which the dead are decontaminated from all sin and worldliness has been traditionally called by the Church “Purgatory” from the Latin term purgare, which means “to cleanse.” In 2007, Pope Benedict wrote an encyclical letter on Christian hope in which he talked about what happens after we die and who goes to Hell, Heaven and Purgatory. Today is a good day to review his words. He described Hell as that state where those people go “who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves.” He commented, “This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history.” He doesn’t mention anyone by name, but we can think that some genocidal leaders, sadistic serial killers, abortionists, if their deeds correspond to what was really in their hearts and they failed to repent, would end up here. “In such people,” Pope Benedict added, “all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable. This is what we mean by the word Hell.” Hell, the Catechism tells us, is the place of “definitive self-exclusion” from God. All who go to Hell choose it, because they would consider Heaven — where everyone adores God — a hell for them who want a life without God. I’ve seen glimpses of those who would be in Hell by those who seemed to choose it on earth. I remember with horror a few deathbeds at which I’ve been present when family members have called me at the last second in the hope that their family member, like the Good Thief, will open up to receive God’s mercy. Some have, which are among the most beautiful moments in priestly life. But others have not. Some dying people have started to yell at me as soon as I entered the room, with clenched fists and expletives telling me to leave, screaming that they’ve lived their life without God until then and don’t want to die with God either. Hell is a real possibility for human freedom. Heaven, Pope Benedict said in contrast, is the place to which go those “who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are.” Not even all the canonized saints go immediately to heaven because, even though they live the Christian faith with heroic virtue, there may be parts of their life that are not totally redeemed, they may still have some defects, whether anger, impatience, vanity, lack of total forgiveness for those who have hurt them, or other means. Pope Benedict tells us that “we know from experience that neither case” — those who have totally destroyed their desire for God or those who live exclusively out of that desire — “is normal in human life.” He goes on to describe Purgatory. “For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge?” He says that they need to be purified, to “pass through fire so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.” That encounter happens in the fire of Christ’s saving love. “Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves.” This, he says with hope, is the place where the great majority of people go, the people who are in need of this purifying fire of Christ’s love. We’ll return to the spiritual consequences of this with regard to what we’re doing today shortly.
  • The second truth is that Church has believed in the need for purification after death since before she was even founded. In the second book of Maccabees, written about 140 years before Christ’s birth, we see that that the Jewish people offered sacrifices in the temple for all those Jews who had lived a double life and betrayed the Lord by carrying in their clothing various idols of the Greek pagans who sought to destroy the temple and extirpate the Jewish faith. Very much to the point, the sacred author wrote: if they “were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (2 Macc 12:43-45). In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt 12:32), implying quite clearly that there are some sins that can be forgiven in the age to come, the type of sin which St. John’s first letter says is not “mortal” or “deadly” (1 John 5:16). Continuing the tradition of the faithful Jews, the Church has therefore prayed for people to be purified of their venial sins, because such behavior is not “superfluous” or “foolish.”  With our beloved dead, we never know if they might have been hiding some sins out of fear or weakness. And so we come here to do something far more important than sending two-thousand silver drachmas (about $1,300 today) to Jerusalem for a sacrifice of atonement. We come to offer to the eternal Father the body, blood, soul and divinity of his dearly beloved Son, in expiation for our sins, the sins of our loved ones, and the sins of the whole world.
  • That brings us to the third truth of faith. The Church teaches that our prayers actually can and do help the dead if they are in purgatory, where any and all vestiges of distorted self-love are transformed into love of God. Second Maccabees tells us, very succinctly, “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins” (2 Macc 12:45). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC 1032). God has set up the economy of salvation so that our deeds of love offered in union with Christ’s own sacrifice may help others. Christ calls us to be co-redeemers with him. Just as his passion, death and resurrection brought salvation to the whole human race, so our deeds of love united to his, by God’s own design, can help those who have gone before us. This is one of the reasons why St. Paul could exclaim, “In my own flesh, I make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Col 1:24). The Church teaches that praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy, a spiritual work of loving co-redemption. And the greatest prayer of all we could offer for the dead is the prayer of the Mass, when we unite our own personal prayers — those emanating from our lips, our hearts, even our bodies in all types of actions of loving sacrifice for others — to Christ’s own prayer in the Mass, the continuous, saving sacrifice once-and-for-all begun during the Last Supper and finished on the Cross. Pope Francis said this morning in his Angelus meditation, “Church tradition has always urged prayer for the dead, in particular by offering the celebration of the Eucharist for them: it is the best spiritual help that we can give to their souls, particularly to the most abandoned ones. The foundation of prayers in suffrage of souls is in the communion of the Mystical Body,” and that communion is expressed most powerfully at Mass. That is why the Church has venerated for centuries the practice of praying for the dead at Mass, explicitly having Masses offered for a particular loved one as well as praying, in every Eucharistic prayer, for all those “who have gone before us with the sign of faith” (Eucharistic Prayer I), as well as “all the dead, whose faith you {God] alone have known” (Eucharistic Prayer IV).
  • St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Thessalonians that, with regard to the death of our loved ones, we Christians grieve, but we grieve differently than the rest “who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). We grieve because we love and we know that with the death of a loved one, life will never be the same. Grief is a sign of our love, of our missing the blessing the person was in our life and of our longing to enjoy that union again. So we Christians mourn differently than those pagans and atheists who think, as the fools did in the Book of Wisdom that the souls are simply “dead,” their “passing away … an affliction,” “their going forth from us utter destruction.” For them, there is no hope ever to see their loved ones again. When they lose someone tragically, how much worse is the pain, believing that no redemption is possible. Thanks be to God we Christians grieve differently! But we also grieve differently from those who have no hope because they don’t think they have to have hope, believing falsely that life in this world is inconsequential and that no matter what we do we end up in the eternal honor roll and in a “better place.” They don’t pray for loved ones because they basically believe that our life choices don’t really matter much in terms of our eternal destiny: it doesn’t matter, in other words, if we come to Mass or watch cartoons, if we confess to a priest or to a bartender, if we receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick or refuse it, if we pray or play, if we keep or break promises, if we steal or sacrifice, if we’re faithful to our spouse or cheat, if we provide for or neglect our family, if we forgive or settle scores, if we love or abuse the poor, if we teach the truth or just tell people what they want to hear, or if we welcome or abort the littlest of Jesus’ brethren. We Christians grieve differently from those who believe life doesn’t matter. We know life matters, we know our decisions matter, and we know that most of us have good days and bad days, we know we sometimes make the right choices and sometimes make the wrong choices. We know that neither we nor our loved ones live and die as the sinless Blessed Virgin Mary and for that reason we pray, but we pray with hope and confidence in the Lord’s eternal love. I feel the need to make this point about praying for the dead even more strongly, however, following up on what Pope Benedict said earlier when he noted that it’s not “normal in human life” for someone to die with a soul “utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors, people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God [in death] only brings to fulfillment what they already are.” The consequence of this is that the vast majority of people will need prayers after they die. The vast majority of us will not go immediately to heaven after judgment because we’re not living as true saints in this world but are regularly making compromises with our faith. And the vast majority of the dead will need a lot of prayers. Jesus gives a snap snot of where the vast majority of people are trending in St. Matthew’s Gospel when he says, “The door is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter by it are many. And the door is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14). This is not necessarily, thanks be to God, a picture of the way everything ends up — because the whole mission of Christ and the Church he founded is to try to rescue people from the broad, easy, congested “highway to hell” and lead them to the narrow, uphill, way of the cross that leads to life — but it is a striking image, given to us by Jesus Himself, the Truth incarnate who cannot and will not deceive us, about the way the vast majority of people are heading. We can see Jesus’ strong words validated in the practice of the Commandments, Beatitudes and spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Far more people break the commandments than keep them; just think about how the vast majority of Catholics don’t even keep just the third commandment. Far greater numbers live contrary to the Beatitudes than according to them; how many people do you find who are poor in spirit, gentle and merciful, who mourn, whose greatest hunger is for holiness, who are pure in heart, make peace, and are persecuted for Jesus’ name? These are far fewer than those who seek after riches, power, sex, fame, and popularity. And even among those who can name the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, much bigger crowds feel tell the hungry and thirsty to get a job rather than feed them, reject undocumented immigrants rather than welcome the stranger, stare at pornography rather than clothe the naked, call for the death penalty rather than visit the imprisoned, and the plug on those who are no longer economically advantageous or abort handicapped children rather than care for the sick. Few of us will live and die as Mother Teresa’s. Few of us sadly are even trying to live and die as Mother Teresa’s. Many of us are content in being mediocre Catholics, bland “good people,” but not saints. And only saints go straight to heaven — and they’re the only ones who don’t need prayers after their death. The vast majority of people need not just some prayers but a lot of prayers and Catholics are those who ought to be on the front lines of praying without ceasing out of love for them.
  • So let’s get practical. Are we praying for the dead? Are we really carrying out with perseverance this spiritual work of mercy, as if others’ lives depended on it? Do we seek to offer Mass for those who have gone before us? Do we come to funeral Masses to pray for them, or just to “pay our respects” to them and to their family? It’s beautiful to pay respects to someone we’ve known and honor that person’s family, but we Catholics are called out of faith and love to do much more: we called to pray for the deceased and their family. Do we seek to visit people’s graves on All Souls’ Day, on Memorial Day, on the anniversaries of the day the Lord came for them? Do we come to Mass on All Souls’ Day to pray for all the faithful departed, especially when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday? Do we live the month of November as a month of praying for the dead? Do we pray the Rosary for the dead, asking Mary to pray for them at the hour of their death and for us now? Do we offer sacrifices for them and try to obtain indulgences for them?
  • I want to finish with a beautiful story of a little girl I met in Texas six years ago. Her name is Caeli, which in Latin means “of Heaven.” She has suffered tremendously in her life from various serious illnesses that even the top experts at the Houston Medical Center have not be able to diagnose. She used to offer all of her pains up for the holy souls in Purgatory, so that they could get to heaven. She even planted a garden in her back yard, at 5 years old, that she called the “garden of souls,” where she would kneel to pray the prayer of St. Gertrude for the Souls in Purgatory before each plant, and there were hundreds of plants there. She invited her pastor and me to come by her home to see her “garden of souls” and pray with her and we did. I was blown away by the size of it. She would kneel before each plant and pray the prayer of St. Gertrude, the great 13th century Benedictine nun and mystic, to whom Jesus had revealed this prayer promising that every time it was devoutly said it would help 1,000 souls in Purgatory. Caeli would say the prayer at one plant and then move to the next one, continuing to pray in this way for many minutes ever day. As we observed her devotion to praying for the faithful departed, my priest friend and I looked at each other with the mutually understood glance, “Are we as spiritually merciful as this little girl?” Today is a day in which all of us in the Church are called to reflect on the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the dead and to respond to this work of mercy not by doing the minimum but by taking our faith seriously and praying for souls like little Caeli Smith, praying with faith and hope for those who lived good and holy lives, but also for those who were lost in life, who died without the comforts of the Sacraments, who may not have had adequate time fully to prepare for death, repent and make full amends with God and others. Today all of us can pray the Prayer of St. Gertude, a prayer that is specifically linked to the celebration of the Mass, the greatest prayer of all for the faithful departed: “Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family.”
  • Today in the words of the Psalm, we come lifting up our soul to God and asking him, for ourselves and our loved ones, to remember us in his kindness, to take away all our sins, to preserve our life and not let us be put to shame. We are uplifted by Jesus’ actions in the Gospel, taken from when Jesus himself was dying to answer those prayers. His first words from the Cross were “Father, forgive them for they now not what they do!,” a prayer that stretched, we pray, to those in Judas Maccabeus’ armies, to those who were hammering him to the beams of the Cross, to those we know and love and to all others. And in his second word, Jesus made that desire for forgiveness quite personal with the Good Thief. When Dismas asked with faith to the Crucifixion victim in the middle to remember him when he entered his kingdom, to a man who would die before even Dismas would die, it was a sign that he recognized something different, that he would be capable of remembering even after he breathed his last. And Jesus responded not just that he would remember Dismas, but that he would take Dismas with him. “Amen I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise!” Today we ask for what the Good Thief asked for, not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones and all those who have died.
  • Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace! Amen!

The readings for the Mass were: 

A Reading from the Second Book of Maccabees (2 Macc 12:38-46)
Judas rallied his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the week was ending, they purified themselves according to custom and kept the sabbath there.  On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his men went to gather up the bodies of the slain and bury them with their kinsmen in their ancestral tombs.  But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had been slain.  They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden.  Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen.  He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view;  for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.  But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.  Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.
The Word of the Lord.

Responsorial Psalm (Ps 25)

R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.

Remember that your compassion, O Lord,
And your kindness are from of old.
In your kindness remember me,
Because of your goodness, O Lord.

R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.

Relieve the troubles of my heart,
And bring me out of my distress.
Put an end to my affliction and my suffering;
And take away all my sins.

R. To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.

Preserve my life and rescue me;
Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
Let integrity and uprightness preserve me,
Because I wait for you, O Lord.

 A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:13-18)

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.  Therefore, console one another with these words.
The Word of the Lord.

Alleluia Verse and Verse Before the Gospel
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke (Lk 23:33.39-43)
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.”  The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?  And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The Gospel of the Lord