HOMILY THEME: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’” (Matthew 5:4)
BY: Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
All Saints; Matthew 5:1-12
Erica, a chaplain colleague at the hospital, pulled me aside one morning to unburden herself of a seething anger. “Bob,” she said, “I have to tell you that I was at a wake last night for the mother of a friend from high school. Her name is Dawn, and I overheard a conversation between her and the priest who would be celebrating the funeral Mass the next morning. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Dawn asked the priest if he thought her mother was in heaven, and he didn’t hesitate a moment before he said, ‘No, your mother is in purgatory because she didn’t receive the Sacrament of the Sick before she died.’ Well, first I was just stunned, then angry, so angry, as I saw how upset Dawn was. How could a priest ever say such a hurtful thing? Or did he even realize how much his comment hurt?”
Erica, a Quaker, has been a friend of mine for more than a decade, and I knew she wasn’t looking to me for some Catholic justification for what the priest had proclaimed with such surety the previous evening. Rather, Erica needed a safe place to dump her anger; but there was more, for she was also reminding me that, because I’m a priest, my words carry more weight than I often realize.
During a quiet time later that day, I thought more about what Erica had shared with me, and I realized that, while I’d never say what the priest at the wake had said, I do regularly pass judgment on many a deceased. Over the years as a hospital chaplain, I’ve been present at the bedsides of many patients who have died, their families and friends surrounding the bedside, torn and in tears. Leading the group in prayer and blessing the body of the deceased, I always conclude with a variation of this pronouncement: “Your mother is now in heaven, free from all that made life so difficult and painful here on earth. She’s now with God; she’s now the strong one. Now is the time for you to pray to her, asking that she send you some of heaven’s peace and consolation.”
Yes, I regularly pass judgment, not because I know the mind of God, but because I want to offer comfort to a grieving family. I wonder, though, if this is “cheap” consolation. I mean, I usually know nothing about the life of the deceased person before me. And even when I invite the family to share stories, it’s only the brightest, happiest and most tender remembrances that come to light. In the end, I guess I do act like a judge — and I send them all to heaven.
In the gospel passage we hear today, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’” (Matthew 5:4) But the comfort that Jesus speaks of and calls us to offer one another must be honest. Our proffered consolation must admit of the truth that the deceased, simply by being human, was imperfect, was flawed, and had sinned. Nevertheless, it’s to be expected that tender memories surface at the death of a loved one, imperfections sinking temporarily out of consciousness, funeral homilies and eulogies usually presenting idealized versions of a frail, mortal life.
In the end, no one can say with any surety what happens after our last breath. One priest asserts that purgatory lies in store; I’m the softie who sends everyone to heaven. We’re both probably very foolish to do this, as we know well that the scriptures are loaded with assertions that God alone is the judge, and that our earthly task is only to love one another.
Death will ever remain a mystery, Jesus the only one who has ever truly died and then returned to tell us what’s in store. He has shown us how to live and how to love, the prelude to eternal and perfect happiness in heaven. But it all relies on faith, not fact. We believe, but cannot prove, that God’s mercy is something wonderful beyond comprehension and imagination.
As we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, followed by All Souls Day, we remember those who have gone before us and have formed us. Immediate ancestors have had a proximate hand in it; others less near, including the canonized saints, have had a more distant influence. Both groups, the near and the far, remain forever our spiritual ancestors in the faith.