"You must also be ready"

Sermon preached today at the Oratory School Requiem Mass in the Little Oratory, London

You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Luke 12.40)

In the canon of the Mass, we pray for all those who sleep in the sleep of peace qui dormiunt in somno pacis. (At least we pray that in Latin – it is missing in the English translation for the moment.) We pray that God will grant them a place of cool repose, light and peace. But the Church refers to them as already sleeping in the sleep of peace.

This is part of our Catholic faith: that the Holy Souls are certain of their place in heaven. They are sure of being in a state of grace that they will never lose. In that way, they are already happier than we are on earth. We do not know for certain that we will get to heaven: it depends on how we live the rest of our lives. We do not know that we will persevere in a state of grace.

However, the Holy Souls are not completely happy: they mourn their sins. Nevertheless they rejoice to receive the purifying grace of God.
For daily falls, for pardon’d crime
they joy to undergo
the shadow of Thy cross sublime,
the remnant of Thy woe.
I sometimes think that the doctrine of purgatory has been put up in the attic of our treasure-house of Catholic doctrines. As with many Catholic doctrines, if we do not understand it properly, we are in danger of unconsciously assuming the veracity of those who do not share our faith and simply caricature it. We might start to think of purgatory as some harsh or miserable doctrine that has no place in the modern world.

This is so very far from the truth! If I were to ask you today to put up your hand if you are already a saint, I doubt if anyone would put their hand up. If anyone did, we would presume that they were either proud, or perhaps that they didn't understand what a saint was, or that it was a boy trying to be funny. We know that we have our faults and sins. If we read through the examination of conscience in the Simple Prayer Book, we do not find it difficult to see that there are sins that we have committed, probably this very day. We have no grounds for confidence that when we die, we will already be candidates for canonisation.

And nobody can enter heaven who is not a saint. Yet rather than cast us out into the darkness, our loving heavenly Father allows us, without any merit of our own, to be cleansed and purified by his own almighty power.

For sure, this is a painful process. To be on the threshold of heaven and the beatific vision of God, but not to possess that vision and glory must be very painful. It will also be painful for us to understand more clearly than we ever did on earth how much grace God gave us, how easy it would have been to correspond with that grace, how much help we were given to avoid temptation, how much to our advantage it would have been actually to have lived as saints.

St Louis Grignon de Montfort, in his book “The Secret of the Rosary”, quotes a story told by Blessed Alan de la Roche.
A nun who had always had a great devotion to the Rosary appeared to one of her sisters in religion and said to her “If I were allowed to go back into my body, to have the chance of saying just one single Hail Mary – even if I said it quickly and without great fervour – I would gladly go through the sufferings that I had during my last illness all over again, in order to gain the merit of this prayer”. (De Dignitate Psalterii c.49)
So it is indeed a painful process of purification: but a cleansing, welcome and healing pain. A man who has been sick and bedridden for some time will find it painful to walk again but his aches and stiffness have a purpose. The Holy Souls know that their purification has a most magnificent purpose: to prepare them to be fit for heaven. They would not want to be in heaven without being made saints by God. They are aware that this process of purification is entirely due to the mercy and goodness of God and his infinite love for them, the expression of his will that they should receive eternal life.

This is a most wonderful truth of our faith and we should rejoice in it, not be embarrassed by it. Yet there is even more to rejoice in, something perhaps even greater in the richness of God’s loving provision for us. Not only will God finish off the work that we should have done on earth, the work that he gave us the grace to do ourselves. He will also allow those still on earth to pray for us and for those prayers to help us. Again, this is a most wonderful truth of our Catholic faith. We can actually help our loved ones by praying for them.

As I said, many people do not speak of purgatory. As a consequence, people forget or neglect to pray for the dead. Often, a funeral Mass is billed as “A celebration of the life of Fred.” Poor Fred is longing for our prayers, the prayers of those who most love him, to help to purify him of his sins and imperfections, and often what people do is to joke about those sins as though they don’t matter. Of course, for those who have died, we forgive them any harm they did to us, just as God forgives them. But so often, when we think of the dead, there is no prayer, no effort to help. We speak of the forgotten souls in purgatory who have nobody to pray for them. We try to remember them too in November. But how much sadder is it when the Holy Souls do have people to pray for them: and those people do not do so!

The help that our prayers bring to the Holy Souls means that November is a time of rejoicing in purgatory. The Holy Souls benefit so much from all our Masses, such as the one we celebrate today, our November lists, our candles, the indulgences we gain for them, and all the times that we say the “Eternal rest”. We should make a resolution to pray for the Holy Souls every day, perhaps at the end of our morning and night prayers, and after our grace after meals.

This pious practice of praying for the Holy Souls also reminds us of our own mortality. We also will die. We have a short time here on earth and an eternity afterwards. Our eternal salvation is the only thing that really matters in this life. Does this mean that we forget social justice and the care of others? Of course not! Our Blessed Lord taught us clearly enough that our eternal salvation depends precisely on our love of God and of others. If you are married, you will get to heaven by being the best spouse and parent that you can be. If you are working, you will get to heaven by doing your work well and conscientiously. If you are studying, you will get to heaven by studying well. To see this life in the perspective of eternity is not to deny the importance of our work in this world, it is simply to put it in its proper context.

Our Catholic prayers and hymns help us greatly in this if we would only notice. We ask Mary daily to pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. At every Mass, we look forward to our own eternal salvation. In our Catholic hymns, we often pray for eternal life.
Guard and defend me from the foe malign
In death's dread moment, make me only Thine.
Call me and bid me come to Thee on high
Where I may praise Thee with Thy saints on high.
These prayers and reminders can help us to be ready when the Son of man comes. As Our Lord pointed out with divine common sense, we do not know when that will be. Therefore we need to be ready at all times, to live with our eyes cast on eternal life – to live, indeed, to live life to the full through God’s abundant grace, but to live every day with the certainty of death before us and the hope of eternal happiness in heaven. If we forget that, we are not living in the real world.

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