Sunday November 2, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of All Souls
Reading I (Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14) Reading II (1 John 3:1-3)
Gospel (St. Matthew 5:1-12a)
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of All Souls. This is a critically important feast for us to keep in mind because we know that heaven is not an absolute guarantee. More than the fact that it is not an absolute guarantee, there is a condition, in fact, a couple of conditions that are placed upon it. In order to get to heaven one must die in the state of sanctifying grace. There are only two possibilities: one can be in the state of mortal sin or one can be in the state of sanctifying grace; there is not any other option. If you have venial sins on your soul, you are still in the state of sanctifying grace; but a mortal sin removes a person from the state of sanctifying grace, and unless that sin is confessed and forgiven one does not have the ability to go to heaven.
Beyond just simply being in the state of sanctifying grace, the Book of Revelation tells us nothing that is imperfect or impure can enter into the kingdom of God. And we recognize that most of us are probably not perfect. If God required that we be perfect by the time we died, there probably would not be very many people in heaven. You would have a handful of the saints who have achieved perfection in this life, and the rest of us, if that were the case, would be condemned to eternity apart from God. Obviously, the Lord, Who desires the salvation of all, is not going to try to make it so difficult to get to heaven that no one can enter or almost no one. Our Lord did make it clear, however, that they are few who are on the path, few by comparison, to the many who are on the wrong path. He told us to take the narrow road, the rough road that leads to life because it is the wide and easy road that leads to condemnation. When He was asked by His disciples, “Who, then, can be saved?” He told them, “For man it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
We have to understand that we cannot save ourselves. We are dependent on someone else to save us. God sent His only Son into this world to come and die for us so that we would be able to be saved, being set free from sin and from the effects of sin which include death, so that we would be able to live with Him forever. Now we know that our souls are immortal and that on the day of resurrection our bodies will rise from the dead and they will be reunited with our souls. We heard in the first reading from the Book of Daniel that some will rise and they will be an everlasting horror and a disgrace, others will shine like the stars in the firmament of heaven. But that is going to be what is eternal. There are only two eternal possibilities, and that is heaven or hell.
Today we commemorate those souls who are on the way to heaven, those souls who died in the state of grace but were not yet perfect and are not yet perfect; and because of the imperfection which remains upon their soul, God in His mercy has provided a place for them to be perfected. Now there are some people who think that purgatory sounds like a terrible thing for God to inflict upon His people. But when we see it from the other side, we realize that it is actually a great mercy. As I mentioned a moment ago, if God required that we die in the state of perfection in order to go to heaven, most of us probably would not even come close. And so He has given purgatory as a place of purification. As its name says, it is a place where that which is not of God is going to be purged. It is not a punishment on God’s part, but rather it is part of His mercy. It is, in fact, a matter of justice. At the moment we die we will go to stand immediately before Jesus Christ for judgment. The soul will either be condemned to eternity in hell or it will be brought into immediate entrance into heaven, or, as we look at Our Lord, if we recognize that in fact we do love God, we have tried to do what is right, we have confessed our sins and been forgiven, but yet there are still imperfections within us, venial sins and things that had not yet been perfected, we will actually look at the Lord and say, “I cannot yet enter.”
It is almost as if you were coming out of a place that is dark at noontime on a bright day. You walk out the door and your eyes cannot stand the light; it is just too bright to be able to look at. You know that you will be able to enter into that light, but as yet you cannot. And so what we sometimes will do is retreat back into the doorway where it still is a little bit dark, but still more bright than it was in the building where we came out of, and we wait for our eyes to adjust before we can walk out into the bright sunlight. It is similar in that way that we know if the soul is imperfect it cannot behold God face-to-face; it is too brilliant of a light to be able to behold. And so we are the ones who will actually beg the Lord for the mercy to be able to be purified so that the eyes of our soul can behold the Lord. It is not God condemning us, but rather it is God being merciful to us.
Now purgatory is not a pleasant place to be. It is a place of suffering where all the effects of sin and any sins that remain upon the soul are being purified – burnt, if you will – from the person. Saint Paul tells us that after this life there will be a purification as if in fire. Any of us who have dealt with certain detachments in our lives, if there is someone in your life, for instance, whom you had great admiration for and were perhaps attached to and that person moved away or the relationship broke up somehow, you know the pain of what that feels like, a burning in the heart, having lost someone who is so important to you; or if someone steals something that is yours that is very important to you, you know not only the feeling of the violation but the burning within because something has been removed that you were holding on to. That is the same kind of burning that takes place in purgatory. It is a spiritual place where we are being purified of all of our unhealthy attachments, of all the things which are not of God within us.
All of us have an opportunity to do that in this life. We can work to remove all of the sinfulness, all of the selfishness, and thereby not only shorten our time in purgatory but actually have a higher place in heaven. Or we can wait until the next life. Now, on one level, it would sound reasonable for us to say, “Well, let me just wait until I get there. Then I can whoop it up here as long as I’m not in the state of mortal sin. I’ll worry about being purified later.” I would not recommend that. The problem with that is multifold. First of all, the disposition of the soul is basically saying, “I am more interested in me than I am in God. And when it comes not only to what I am going to do in this life but to the next life, I want to love God but really not very much. I want to love Him as little as I can and still be able to eke my way into heaven.” That is not a very prudent choice.
There are some people who have the attitude that all they want is the bottom rung in purgatory. If you get the bottom rung in purgatory, praise God! because you are guaranteed that you will go to heaven. Every soul in purgatory will go to heaven. There is no going backwards once you get there. You can no longer sin, so it is just a matter of being purified to get to heaven. The problem is that if you aim for the bottom rung in purgatory and you miss, there is no turning back. You will be separated from God for all eternity. If, on the other hand, you aim for the highest place possible in heaven where you can love God to the fullness of your ability and be loved by Him to the fullness of your ability, and in your human imperfection you do not make it anywhere near where you would like to be and you just barely catch the bottom rung of purgatory, at least you know that you are going to go to heaven. But if you are aiming low and you miss, you are in trouble for all eternity. So aim high.
Part of what you can do is pray for the souls who are in purgatory. They are part of the Communion of Saints, which is why the Church places this feast one day after All Saints. Remember, the Communion of Saints is every single soul in heaven, every soul in purgatory, and every soul on earth who is in the state of sanctifying grace; so all of these are holy souls. These are all souls who are saints, who will go to heaven. They are not there yet, but they will be. That is a guarantee and what a beautiful guarantee it is. All of us are guaranteed that if we die in the state of grace we will go to heaven. The souls in purgatory have already done that. Theirs is a guarantee of eternal life with God. But out of charity we can help them. There is nothing more that they can do for themselves. They are doing absolutely everything in their power to get to heaven as soon as they can. So they can do nothing more than what they are doing. But we can help them by praying for them, by offering sacrifices for them, by remembering them always in our prayers. This will shorten their time in purgatory.
Even if we wanted to look at it selfishly, which would be completely the wrong reason, we realize that in return for helping them to get to heaven – for which they will be eternally grateful, that they did not have to spend one more second in purgatory than what was necessary – they in turn will help us. They will pray for us and they will help us along the way. So it is a win-win situation. Remember always those of your own family members and friends who have gone before you because not very many people are praying for them. Do not forget them. But also remember to pray for the forgotten souls in purgatory, for the souls who have no one to pray for them. How many people who are not Catholic, and therefore do not believe in purgatory, have gone from this life and are now in purgatory? No one from their own faith background is going to pray for them because they do not believe that it even exists. And so there these souls sit with no one to pray for them because they refused to believe in the Word of God that teaches us very clearly about this place of purification. They understand it well now and they believe, but their friends and family do not. It is charity on our part to pray for them and to help them so that they too will be able to get to heaven sooner.
When we think about purgatory, we have to understand that there are some saints who have told us that the pain of purgatory is almost equal to that of hell but with hope. But that does not seem quite right. Purgatory is indeed a place of hope – because, as I said, everyone in purgatory will go to heaven and they know that it is just a matter of time – but the disposition is entirely different. It is one of rejoicing in the midst of their suffering. It is one of great hope as they march forward to their ultimate triumph of entrance into eternal glory. And so even though these are suffering souls, they are happy souls, joyful in the Lord; and they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the same Communion of Saints. Do not abandon them in their suffering and they will not abandon us in ours. As we pray for them, they will pray for us. It is a matter of charity on our part to pray for the dead, and on this day especially. And not only one day out of the year, but everyday to remember always those who have gone before us and yet await the fulfillment of their hope: the entrance into the face-to-face vision of God’s eternal glory.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.