All Souls Day 2004
There is a newspaper columnist in the United States named Jimmy Breslin. He is 74 years old – as I am – and has just written a book titled, “The Church that Forgot Christ”. It is getting rave notices in the United States among those whom we might call progressive Catholics, that is, those who took and take Vatican II seriously and who want to see it implemented a lot faster than it has been so far.
Breslin is a cradle Catholic, from Brooklyn , New York . He values his Catholic education and training. He is distraught beyond measure at what he sees as the institution’s highest ranking members living lives that do not reflect the spirit of Jesus. Recently he stood with a group of Catholic teachers in New York demanding a just wage and protesting outside the doors of the hotel where New York ’s Catholic financial elite were dining at $1,000 a plate dinners in the presence of the cardinal archbishop of that city. In a recent radio interview he said that he had to do what he did or everything that he believes he must be about in the spirit of Jesus would have been given over to greed and corruption.
Those are strong words and there are many who would disagree with him explaining that the money from that dinner is used for Catholic charities in New York City . But that is not the key point that I want to share with you today.
One year ago Breslin discovered that he had a massive brain tumour. The operation that was needed required them to peel away his forehead and scalp from the top of his face and the removal of part of his skull to access and remove the growth. An interviewer asked him if he were frightened about the operation and Breslin replied, “Not at all.” When he was asked why not, Breslin said, “Every day of my life I do what I believe my faith calls me to do. I work to feed the hungry and end anything and everything that makes them hungry in the first place. I work to clothe the naked and end everything and anything that makes them naked in the first place. I work to counsel the ignorant and work to end anything and everything that makes them ignorant in the first place and that keeps them ignorant. I do that every day of my life so what do I have to fear? No matter how long or short my life is when I live that way – the way of Christ – I am at peace.”
If today is about anything it must surely be about this. Yesterday we were asked to remember those who have been canonized formally but more especially those whom we have canonized in our hearts. We remember parents – or those who stood in their place in some way or another – friends, associates, colleagues, brothers and sisters in the flesh, and those who are our brothers and sisters in the Lord – all those who have gone before us into God’s arms. We remember the goodness of their lives and we celebrate the inspiration they have been and continue to be to us.
Today we are asked to remember that these people were not perfect. We are reminded that most of us have not always nor all ways lived up to what the Jesus way of life asks of us, but that must not leave us hopeless.
You probably know that Purgatory is a contested idea among our Protestant brothers and sisters. They say they can find no reference for it in scriptures and so they have difficulty believing it. It took Catholic councils almost 1500 years to begin a formal definition of it and to provide some kind of understanding of it. Eventually we came to refer to the Church Triumphant, those whom we celebrated yesterday. The Church Militant, that’s supposed to be us, working to make the abundant life Christ wanted for all a reality in our time and our place. More often than now we refer to ourselves as the Pilgrim Church because of the warlike connotations of “militant”. And then there are the Church Suffering, those headed for intimate union with God but needing some added work as it were, to accomplish that divinization. We are told that our prayers for them help that process along.
Artists and preachers have often pictured Purgatory as a place like hell filled with incredible torment but punishments that will endure for a particular period of time and not forever. It may come as a surprise to you that this is artistic license. There is nothing in the formal explication of the teaching that requires us to believe that it is a place of such torment. The torment if there is any, is separation from the Beloved God.
Is this so far fetched? Surely, when we are separated physically from those we love, by distance, by death, by disagreement, the emotional pain can be unbearable. At the core of the doctrine of purgatory is the affirmation that there is a transitional spiritual state for those who are in an already but not quite yet state of being to enjoy God’s own presence completely, totally, and entirely.
Given the process of dying and death today, some of our theologians are saying that our dying and death is our purgatory and coincident with it. And perhaps that is indeed the case.
In any event, we are asked to remember those who have made a difference in our lives, to be grateful for the times when perhaps they loved us when no one else did, that they were on our side when no one else was, that they saw good in us which we were too blind to see in ourselves.
And perhaps these past two days in particular, as is Ash Wednesday and all of Lent, is a vital reminder that our time on this earth is limited. It’s true that each of us has all in the time in the world, twenty-four hours each day, and that how we use it marks us as a Christ-bearer or not. But our actual time here is limited, short in the eternal scheme of things.
My hope and prayer is that we all will come away from these two days with the spirit of Jimmy Breslin, fearing nothing, not even death itself, because we have fed the hungry and done everything and anything to end what makes that hunger happen in the first place. That when we place our heads on our pillows at night we will be able to say that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy have been our raison d’etre for that day and all the days of our lives and that if we awaken to a new day on this earth or in the Arms of God, we will hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Amen.