Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Funeral Rites of the Church: An Annual Plea

     This past week my homily centered on our stewardship of the sacred rites (i.e. the Mass).  I made the point that the sacred rites are not ours to do with as we might wish, but are given to us as a sacred trust by the Church for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world.  I made the point, in passing, that even (especially?) weddings and funerals are not OUR weddings and funerals.  While we might be the subject of that particular liturgy, it is still the Church’s liturgy and when we stray from gratefully and reverently receiving what the Church has given us we risk missing out on the graces we are intended to receive through the celebration of those sacred rites.
     In this month of November in which we are particularly attentive to The Last Things it seems particularly appropriate to say something about the Church’s funeral rites.  There have been, of late, quite a lot of strange things creeping into our funeral rites.  This is very unfortunate since our funeral rites are so very beautiful and present to us the depth of the Church’s experience and reflection on our communion with Christ in his passion, death, and resurrection.
     The funeral rites of the Church are a very balanced celebration of our salvation in Christ coupled at once with our hope in our own salvation and eventual resurrection and our recognition that most of us stand in need of prayer (especially the through great graces which come to us through our praying of the Mass) in order to make those final steps through the gates of heaven.
     The funeral Mass is very much for our beloved dead!  This is attested to in the introduction to the Church’s funeral rites which reflect the long established wisdom of the Holy Scriptures and the Father’s of the Church, as well as our long established traditions which come out of these two fonts of wisdom.  This is not to say that the funeral rites are not also for the living, those of us who are left behind - if only temporarily!
     The process of moving from the prayers for the dying (or very recently deceased) – to the first viewing of the body and prayers in its presence – to the wake and accompanying service – to the funeral AND burial is very important and really should not be short-circuited as too often happens now-a-days.
     The wake is so important, even for someone who is very old and wouldn’t have many coming for a “visitation”, because this is the opportunity for the family to begin the formal process of commending their loved one to God and saying “good-bye”.  This is also the venue for focusing on our dear decedent.  This is the time for remembering their virtues and the joys and sorrows we shared with that person.  This is the appropriate time for sharing favorite poems and songs that would be otherwise out of place in the context of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  This is also an important time for sharing memories and eulogizing our beloved dead.  If a family does not think that there would be many in attendance it might be better to shorten the time for the visitation rather than cut it out, and the wake service that accompanies it, completely.
     The funeral Mass is the time for making the connection between the passion of our beloved dead with the passion of Christ in the well-founded hope of sharing also in His resurrection.  We pray with the whole Church for the repose of our loved one’s soul as well as our own closer relationship with God in Jesus Christ through our experience of these sacred rites in this very important moment in our life of faith.
     The burial too is an important expression of our belief in the resurrection of the dead.  It should not be delayed without very serious reason, nor must it be tampered with lest we cover over the important Truths these sacred rites convey to us through our observance and celebration of them.
     There really is much more to say, but there is only so much time right now and with God’s good grace I will have more opportunities in the future to share with you the glorious riches that are to be found in our rites for the dying and for the dead in the years ahead.
Pray Well!
Fr. Klos

Purgatory: A beautiful gift

     As the month of November begins we have celebrated the fulfillment of God’s promise in the glory of the Saints in heaven.  Having celebrated those of our elder brothers and sisters who have had God’s promise fulfilled in them we turn our attention to those have fallen just short and so require the assistance of our prayers as they seek to be rid of those last vestiges of sin keeping them from knowing the fullness of joy.
     Some Catholics object to the idea of purgatory.  There are many reasons for this and we could fill an entire book examining the issues that will tend to be issues (when we really dig) with the fallen condition of the human person.  Let me instead talk to you a little bit about why I find this revealed dogma of the catholic and orthodox faith to be such a comfort and a joy.
     I have known several people who have died and yet they were not quite ready to pass-over.  I’m not judging their hearts (remember: judge not lest ye be judged!), I am aware, however, of the state in which they themselves felt they were in.  I can, as you can too, observe that by their actions they aren’t quite getting it.  I can also observe when a dying person is not going easily.  These are all things which can cause not a little consternation amongst the family and friends of the one who has passed.
     We also know, through the scriptures, that one who is not pure (that is, completely cleansed of sin) cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.  We know too, through the clues left in scripture, that there is the possibility of being cleansed of sin even after the death of the body.  So, why purgatory?  Well, remember that purgatory is merely the subject form of the verb: to purge.  Purgatory is merely the opportunity to be purged, that is – cleansed – of our sins.
     Why is this so important?  Martin Luther makes the point that we cannot be made right.  We are too radically damaged by sin.  Thus, Christ covers us over like the snow and so when we enter heaven God doesn’t see us and our sinfulness, He sees only Christ.  Classical Catholic teaching would turn that inside out.  The light of Christ does burn within us.  Sadly, the stain of our repeated sin keeps the light of Christ from shining forth for the Father and everyone else to see.  Our Catholic faith teaches us that we need to clean away (purge) that sin so that the light of Christ which is in each one of the baptized can shine forth.  Thus, as we enter heaven, the Father sees not Christ covering us over (so that we almost sneak in under the cover so to speak), rather He sees us entering heaven – fully conformed to Christ, that is, the image and likeness of God that was given us shines forth perfectly.
     Why is all this perfection such a big deal?  It is important because without perfect charity, that is – love, heaven would not be heaven.  Can you imagine being in heaven and still being ticked off at the habits of this person or that?  Can you imagine this person or that still clinging to the habits that drive you (and probably others) crazy?  It wouldn’t really be heaven then, would it?  So you see, it is important that when we enter heaven, we enter it leaving behind all of the pettiness and sin that we too often excuse and live with in this world.
     I know that a brief discussion like this isn’t going to convince everyone or even answer all of the questions that remain.  You can read more about it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 1030-1032).  In the meantime, let us remember to pray for the souls in purgatory.  Remember, once they get to heaven they can pray for you!
Pray Well!
Fr. Klos