Is your life all over at the grave?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | November 5, 2019

Praying for each other goes on beyond physical death

Why should I pray for someone who has died? Isn’t it all over for them? They’re dead and buried. What would prayers matter to them now?

Sometimes we hear about people who died and have asked that there be no funeral for them. Or maybe just a “celebration of life,” but nothing about prayers. “Just remember me as I was” might even have been said.

A praying angel at Allouez Catholic Cemetery. November is the month to remember the souls of the faithful departed. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

But is that all there is? Just memories?

No. And that’s why the church has a feast called the “Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed,” also known as “All Souls Day.”

Out of time

When we die, we step out of time. But life doesn’t end there; we don’t vanish into nothing just because our bodies died. Our souls are immortal. And those souls step into eternity.

As Christians, we know this to be true because it is what Jesus said so when he promised the good thief, as they were dying on Calvary, that, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”

Saints have also told us of seeing the souls of those who had died. The biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, written by the Dominican Bishop Bernard Gui in 1323, tells the story of Aquinas’ sister appearing to Thomas after her death and asking for prayers. She reappeared to him later, shining in the glory of heaven. We also know stories of canonized saints who have appeared to the living in visions, reminding us that they have not vanished into nothingness but live in the glory of God and can intercede for us.

This, and similar teachings such as Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, are part of the reason why the church teaches us to pray for the souls of the dead. Souls go on. They continue to exist. And they do so as members of the Communion of Saints.

Everyone who ever lived

The church teaches us that the Communion of Saints includes everyone who has ever lived. We, the living on earth, are just as much a part of this communion as those who have died. (Of course, those who have died may also exist in hell, but the church teaches that we cannot know who — besides Satan and his demons — actually lives in hell. That is up to God, his mercy and the free will of each human soul.)

In the Communion of Saints, all souls work together for the good of everyone else. We on earth work to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth by our prayers, love for each other and works of mercy. Those who have died also work for the Kingdom — the saints pray for us, guide us and even appear to us through the grace of God. Souls who have not attained heaven also pray for us. And, unlike the saints, they need our prayers to complete their journey to heaven. They exist in purgatory.

It may seem old-fashioned to think about purgatory. Yet the church teaches that purgatory exists, that there is a time after our deaths when we undergo a process of perfection. This process may not actually involve a time or a place, such as a mini-hell or a shadow of paradise, but it is a reality.

Purgatory

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The church gives the name ‘purgatory’ to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (n. 1031).

But what exactly is purgatory?  St. John Paul II discussed this in the summer of 1999. He said that, before we enter into God’s Kingdom, every trace of sin within us must be eliminated, every imperfection in our soul must be corrected. This is exactly what takes place in purgatory. Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God but are immersed in the love of Christ.”

“Immersed in the love of Jesus” — that’s what Jesus promised the good thief — he promised him the fullness of God’s love that very day.

So, when we die, our soul loses its body. That may seem scary. But if we also, at that moment of separation, immediately feel Jesus’ love surrounding us, that can’t be scary — even if we do find our souls in need of some purification.

That’s where praying for the dead comes in. Not only are our prayers for the dead a way of saying good-bye — as we believe takes place at a funeral — they are a way of helping this purification process.

Remember how St. Thomas Aquinas’ sister appeared to him to ask for prayers — and then again to let him know that his prayers had helped her? We can help souls in the same way.

Month of November

This is why the church has All Souls Day each Nov. 2. The entire month of November is dedicated by the church in remembrance and for prayers for the souls of the faithful departed. We pray for them as they undergo whatever needs to be done before they enter into God’s full glory. And, because they are immersed in the love Christ even now, they can pray for us.

Yes, memories remain after our deaths. But more than memories remain because our souls go on, and so do prayers. And God makes it all work together in one communion of love.

 

Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; general audiences of John Paul II at vatican.va/holyfather; The Catholic Encyclopedia; Dictionary of the Liturgy; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; domincanajournal.org; catholic.com and catholicstraightanswers.com

 

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