Grieving During the Holidays

Today, I was invited to give a talk at one of the local funeral homes for their clients who had lost loved ones during the last year.  I spoke about grieving during the holiday season.

A reading from the book of Revelation (22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21).

“Behold, I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  Blessed are they who wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates.

“I, Jesus, sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.”  The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let the hearer say, “Come.” Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.

The one who gives this testimony says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.

Many years ago now, in the young adult period of my life, my grandmother on my father’s side passed away after a long and heartbreaking illness.  She was one of my best friends: we would sit and talk for hours about the “Old Country” and so many things.  After she died, I was in a local store around this time of year, and the store was all decked out in a homey, holiday theme.  I had gone in there just to see if I could find a gift for my mom, and I was in there maybe thirty second and found I couldn’t take it and rushed out and broke down and cried.  I was overcome by a sense of grief that came at me out of nowhere, and realized that I still had a long way to go in the grieving process.

I’m glad to be here with you tonight, and I look forward to sharing about my own experience of grieving and to share some thoughts about how grief works.  But I do want to start out by saying that I may or may not have any idea how you feel.  Grief is a rather personal thing, by which I mean that each person experiences grieving in their own way.  It has to do with who they are grieving, what their relationship with that person was like, and how long it’s been since the loss of that person took place.  But I do want to be clear about the fact that we all grieve our loved ones – whether our relationship with them was good or bad, no matter how strong or weak we are emotionally otherwise, and no matter how long it’s been since their passing.  Grief is a common human experience, which is part and parcel of the life of loving.

One of my deepest griefs came in the death of my father.  He has been gone ten years now, but it seems like I find a reason to miss him all the time.  Often on the anniversary of his death, I will gather with Mom, my sister Sharon, and my Aunt Eileen (dad’s sister), and sometimes my sister Peggy and the kids, to celebrate Mass and visit the cemetery to pray and lay some flowers, and then go out to eat.  That’s a pretty good picture of how grief works in our family, and always has.  We remember those we love, we pray, we visit the cemetery, and we celebrate them at some kind of meal, talking about them and remembering who they were for us.

Several years ago, not long after he died, I took a road trip.  I packed up early on Sunday and was out of the house by 6am, and took a 3 hour and 45 minute drive to see a friend, one of my classmates from seminary, who was a priest in the diocese of Springfield.  I visited with him all of Sunday and on Monday morning, then packed up just before noon and returned home.

I mention this because the trip itself was a bit unusual for me.  Usually, I’ll play the radio in the car the whole way down, but for most of the trip that time, I traveled in silence.  I did that because I was aware that I was missing my dad in a particular way.  I think I was missing him on this trip because Dad was great for road trips.  He’d get up before the crack of dawn, which is what I did, and he’d motor on toward whatever our destination was.  He loved to drive even long distances, and especially when I was a kid, the trip was kind of filled with expectation.  It wasn’t always fun getting up so early to leave, but it was kind of cool because it was a different experience, and as a kid, who could sleep the night before vacation anyway?

So many wonderful things continue to remind me of Dad.  I was sitting on the deck at Mom’s house a couple of weeks ago.  We had intended Dad to sit out and enjoy the deck that summer, but he died just a few days before it could be completed.  He would have loved it; he always liked sitting outside and enjoying the neighborhood and his house.  So as I sat there on that deck and prayed my breviary, I found myself especially close to Dad.

Whenever I was staying at Mom and Dad’s house overnight, and I’d get up in the morning to go shower, I would pass by his room and he would still be in bed. But he’d be awake, and would always say “good morning.” I miss those “good mornings” now.

A year or so after the deck got built, Mom and I were out staining it. When we were getting started, I was searching the garage for some painting supplies. When I got frustrated and couldn’t find what I was looking for, I said “okay Dad, where did you put it?” And the next drawer I opened had all the things I needed, right where he left them. I couldn’t help but smile and say “thanks” because Dad was the only one who knew where anything was in that garage. Not that it was messy; it was very organized, but he alone knew the scheme!

As I’ve experienced these things in the years since he died, I’ve been aware of my sense of loss that doesn’t ever seem to completely go away.  In some ways, that’s a good thing, because it reminds me how much I have loved and how much I was loved.  And through all of it, I have felt the abiding presence of God who is with us in all of our joys, and all of our sorrows.  I really feel like the danger of grieving is so miniscule compared with the danger of never having loved in our lives.

I come at grief from a couple of perspectives.  I’m Irish on dad’s side and Italian on mom’s side.  So the hands down winner for grieving is the Italian side of me.  I have relatives who have been known to throw themselves on the casket at a cemetery service, and there is generally a lot of outward grieving going on.  The Irish side of me makes all the arrangements, does what needs to be done, then never speaks of it again.  That’s a generalization, of course, but there’s some truth to all of it.

I had the opportunity to experience grieving at a fairly young age: I was just about nine years old.  Then my grandfather, Mom’s Dad, was close to death.  Mom and Dad talked with me about what was going to happen, and we all cried and hugged, and I began the strange feeling of grief when I was just nine years old.  When the time came, as is the custom on both sides of our family, all of us went to the wake and funeral, little as we were.

Some people try to shield their children from that experience.  Indeed, our overly medicated society tries to protect us all from that experience of grief, white-washing it and moving on just as soon as possible.  But how grateful I am that my parents didn’t do that to me, because grieving is a healthy experience in life.  Through that experience, I learned to love more deeply, not less.  I learned that the people in my life are signs to me of God’s love and presence in my life.  I learned that grieving is part of life, that it’s natural, that it’s something we all experience, that it’s a sign of God’s love.  We have to learn to grieve, as soon as we have the opportunity, and not to be afraid of it, because grieving is a way that we remember and love and heal and grow.

Sometimes for my yearly retreat, I will take it at Mundelein Seminary, where I went to school.  I will stay there, and spend some time reading and praying and recharging myself.  One of the things I always try to do every day when I am there is to take a walk around the grounds, which are really beautiful.  One day on my walk around the lake there, I came across an icon of Our Lady of Sorrows that had been recently erected.  It marked the spot where, in the fall of my last year in seminary, four of my brother seminarians were involved in a horrible, alcohol-related accident.  The two back-seat passengers were thrown from the car, and died.  The seminary isn’t like a big state university, it’s a small school of about 230 students, so you can imagine the impact on that small group of men.

The day it happened was, ironically, or perhaps by design, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.  The priest who presided at Mass that day had written his homily the night before, and spoke of Our Lady’s experience of grieving the loss of her Son Jesus.  He never changed a word of it, and of course it resonated with all of us on that day in a way it couldn’t ever have resonated on any other day.  I’ve never seen a room full of hundreds of men in tears except on that day, and let me tell you, it was striking.

The reason I bring this story up is that it is a good example to me of Christian grieving.  The icon was erected a year or so after I left the seminary, and I think it was a good way to remember Matty and Jared.  The community marked the spot where the horrible thing had taken place, consecrated the memory of those good men who had done something stupid to God who makes beauty out of the worst things possible, and commended the whole of it to the saints – in this case in the person of Our Lady of Sorrows.

We believe in the Communion of Saints, which is that wonderful “cloud of witnesses” that we hear about in the Scriptures.  In the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1), we hear this: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.”  This cloud of witnesses, this Communion of Saints consists of all the saints that we always know about: the men and women throughout history that have been formally and canonically recognized as saints.  We believe that these people are definitely in heaven, and have the power to intercede for us through their fervent prayers.

The Communion of Saints also includes, however, those men and women who have never been formally recognized as saints.  They are our loved ones, good and holy people for the most part, who have helped us to see God in this life.  They too can intercede for us to God.  They may or may not be in heaven at this time, but are most likely headed there in any event.  They may still need to undergo the merciful purification that we call Purgatory for a time, but nonetheless, they have been on the whole witnesses of faith for us.

So as I stood there looking at the image of Our Lady of Sorrows, I thought about the Saints, especially the Blessed Virgin, and I thought about the saints, including Matty and Jared, and I prayed for those “small-s” saints with the Memorare, a prayer that I remembered was one of Matty’s favorites:

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.

 Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

 Amen.

The Church helps us through our grieving.  In the Liturgy, we pray what we believe.  And what we believe about grief is that it’s normal, that it’s part of life, that it’s a response to the gift of life that we have been given.  We are a people who believe that there is hope in the midst of sorrow, joy in the midst of pain, resurrection that follows death, and love that survives the grave and leads us to the one who made us for himself.

In the Liturgy, the words of hope that we find lead us back to the Cross and Resurrection. Death is not the end. Love does not come to an end at the grave.  Our loved ones who have been people of faith have been made new by passing through the gates of death. Their happiness is our hope; the grace and blessing that they now share will one day be ours.

But I will acknowledge that even that glimmer of hope doesn’t erase all the pain. We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table. But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the blood of Christ. We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, in the kingdom that knows no end.

Perhaps sometimes it feels like it would have been better not to have loved at all, because then maybe the pain wouldn’t be so great.  But deep down in our hearts, we have to know that’s not true.  Sadness and pain are temporary.  Love is eternal.  As the Church’s Vigil for the Deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.”  We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is a hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

Grief and loss can do a number of things to us, and that is what makes it so scary.  Some people can become fixated in their grief and can be taken by a kind of clinical depression.  For that, we must count on the expert assistance of counselors and therapists who can help us through the root causes of depression and help us to experience our grief in healthier ways.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone who experiences loss should be medicated or is even ill.  If you’re moving through grief and continue to be aware of the gifts of your relationship with those you have lost, and continue to know that God is present with you even in your pain, then you’re probably grieving in healthy ways.  But if you’re lost and have lost sight of God’s love, then you might need to speak with someone about your grief.

Jesus said in the Beatitudes “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  What makes this a particularly outrageous statement is that in biblical language, the word “blessed” here means “happy.”  So how is it that mourners are actually happy?  And the answer to that is that mourners have the wonderful experience of God’s presence in their grief.  When we grieve, we are especially close to God, close to our God who grieves when we are hurt, who may allow the bad things that happen in our lives, but never wills them, whose heart breaks whenever we sin and turn away from him.  We are made in the image and likeness of our God who is no stranger to grief, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, who grieved at the death of his friend Lazarus, who grieved with those he ministered to, and whose heart was broken when he saw the sadness of his mother at the foot of the cross.  Our God accepts grief head-on, and so should we, aware that in our grieving we are closer to God than ever, and have the benefit of his abiding presence in our pain.

The pain doesn’t just go away. There is no time when grief is “over.” I miss Dad in many ways, all the time. I miss my grandparents, and an aunt and uncle who have gone to their rest.  You miss your loved ones in much the same way. There are times when our grief overwhelms us, comes at us out of nowhere. But many are the times when our memories provide us healing and joy.

Especially as we prepare for Christmas, we mourn perhaps more intensely.  It’s hard to be joyful, to see the joy of the world around us, when we are still grieving.  It’s hard to acknowledge that for others, life just goes on.  Although, I have to say that a lot of the so-called happy people out there might just have a happy face pasted on them, because grief is so universal, and almost universally done poorly!  But Advent reminds us that there is hope. This is a reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (25:6-9):

On this mountain the LORD of hosts
will provide for all peoples
A feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.

On this mountain he will destroy
the veil that veils all peoples,
The web that is woven over all nations.

He will destroy death forever.

The Lord GOD will wipe away
the tears from all faces;
The reproach of his people he will remove
from the whole earth; for the LORD has spoken.
On that day it will be said:
“Indeed, this is our God; we looked to him, and he saved us!
This is the LORD to whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”

Advent reminds us God didn’t give up on a world steeped in sin and ruled by death.  Instead, he burst into our time and place with life: taking our lowly and flawed human flesh, and redeeming it, making it holy, that we would be saved and God would be glorified.  For those of us who mourn during the holiday season, the promise of Advent tells us that sadness isn’t our enduring reality, that love conquers everything, and that God has life in mind for all of us, in that kingdom where we all hope to arrive at life eternal.  That’s a hope that is so much stronger than any sadness we may experience.

When he was little, my nephew had a very close relationship with Dad, who he called “Boppy.”  In the days after Dad’s death, Danny often dreamed of Dad and said to his mom, my sister, a year or so after Dad’s death, “I’m sad because I didn’t dream of Boppy last night. I like to dream about Boppy.” Our dreams, our memories are gifts from our God who insists that we always know that we are loved. Sometimes it hurts, but ultimately it heals. Sadness is temporary. Love is eternal.

I Believe in Life Everlasting: A Talk on Catholic Beliefs Regarding Eternity Given to the Clarendon Hills Interfaith Dinner

Today at Notre Dame we celebrated the funeral of a dear woman who has been part of our community for many years.  The funeral Liturgy provides a glimpse as to what the Catholic Church teaches about life, death, and eternity.  In particular, the prayer of commendation, which is said just before leaving the church says this:

Into your hands, Father of mercies,
we commend our sister Helen
in the sure and certain hope
that, together with all who have died in Christ,
she will rise with him on the last day. 

Merciful Lord,
turn toward us and listen to our prayers:
open the gates of paradise to your servant
and help us who remain
to comfort one another with assurances of faith,
until we all meet in Christ
and with you and with our sister for ever.

From this beautiful prayer, we can pick up two very important aspects of the Church’s teaching on eternity: first, for the baptized believer who has done her or his best to live the Gospel, a resurrection to life is assured – in “sure and certain hope.”  Second, that resurrection will happen together with all believers, and until then we wait, comforting one another with “assurances of faith” so that one day we can all “meet in Christ.”

So first, the believer has sure and certain hope of resurrection to life.  Many people erroneously believe that because of the Church’s teaching on works, and also the teaching on purgatory, the salvation of the believer is not certain.  But we believe that our salvation has indeed been won by Christ, and believe that those who accept his free offer of grace and friendship are indeed assured of their eternal salvation (CCC 1031).  The need for purification in purgatory is a separate matter; and I’ll ask you to bookmark that for a bit.*

Second, we believe that salvation is something we’re supposed to do together.  Yes, the individual believer has to choose to receive grace and friendship with God, but we live that grace and friendship in communion with the body of the Church, and it’s up to us as believers to encourage one another and bring one another to heaven.  This is such an important concept that the Church, in its instruction on marriage, insists that “authentic married love is caught up into divine love,” in effect, the spouses love one another into heaven (Gaudium et Spes 48.2, cf CCC 1639).  Even vocations to the consecrated religious life (monks, sisters, etc.) are ordered to the salvation of the person within the context of community.  As Saint Benedict wrote in his Rule for monks, “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72).  This desire for communal salvation is so great that the Church prays for it at every celebration of the Eucharist.  For example, this selection from Eucharistic Prayer I notes that the whole family of believers comes together to offer the sacrifice:

Therefore, Lord, we pray:
graciously accept this oblation of our service,
that of your whole family;
order our days in your peace,
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

And so we can say that Catholic eternity consists of assured and communal salvation for each believer.  But what does it look like?

At the moment of death, each person receives a particular, individual judgment, which corresponds to whether or not they have accepted God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  We see this biblically in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus relates a parable about Lazarus, a poor man, who is ignored by a rich man every single day of their lives on earth.  When they have both died, Lazarus goes to heaven, while the rich man goes to hell.  The rich man cries out for relief to Father Abraham, who replies: “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.  Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours” (Luke 16:25-26).  Jesus was giving this analogy to show the choice that we must make: accepting God’s friendship means living a certain way, loving others and reaching out to them in their need.

Heaven, then, is a choice that leads to perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the angels and saints.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heaven “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).  I always tell the children that I teach that God always wants us to be happy.  And if we want to be happy forever, we will always seek God’s will and do what he calls us to do.  That is the life that leads to heaven.

In heaven, we have communion with the angels and saints and all of the Church, but also and especially with God himself.  This communion is almost indescribable, although the Bible speaks of it in images: light, life, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise.  Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians summed it up: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9, cf CCC 1027).  It’s hard to describe this communion with God because he is transcendent, and so unless he gives us the grace of a capacity to see him, it doesn’t happen.  We call this grace the “beatific vision” in which we are allowed to see God and share with him the joy of salvation (CCC 1028).

Now, we can’t talk about heaven without at least mentioning the other thing, and that is hell.  Because that’s where the rich man found himself, so because Jesus included it in his teaching, we know that it exists.  But what the Church teaches about hell is that it is in itself a choice.  To get there, one must completely reject God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  This is usually done through the act of unrepentant mortal sin: one knows the right thing to do, and actively chooses not to do it, and acts contrary to the good.  If a person commits a mortal sin, it can be forgiven through grace, but for the one who chooses not to seek forgiveness and chooses not to repent, the only other option is a life devoid of God’s presence.  And that life we call hell (CCC 1033).

But here’s the thing about hell.  We don’t really know if anyone’s there or not, well, except for Satan and his demons.  But since God doesn’t send anyone to hell – one chooses to go there freely – we can’t say for certain that there is anyone there.  The Church teaches that we definitely know that thousands of people are in heaven, because we call them saints.  The process of sainthood involves the recognition of miracles that happen after the saint’s death, indicating that the person is acting from the glory of heaven to affect the good of those on earth.  But the Church has never named anyone who is in hell, because we cannot know if, at the moment of death, an unrepentant sinner may have called out to God for mercy, repenting of her or his sins.  We know that hell exists, and we know that it is possible to go there of one’s own free will, but we don’t know that anyone has chosen that option.  In fact, we hope not.

To sum up Catholic teaching about the nature of heaven and eternity, I’d like to once again choose some words from the Church’s Liturgy.  This time it comes from the prayers for the dead, which can be said at the bedside of a dying person.  For them we pray:

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian!

May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the angels and saints …

May you return to [your Creator]
who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints
come to meet you as you go forth from this life…
May you see your Redeemer face to face.  Amen.

*Purgatory

So I referred to Purgatory earlier, and I said to book mark it.  Let’s come back to it now.  Purgatory is thought of as the final purification, in which the soul is made fit to be caught up into the life of God in heaven.  Now once again, every believer who has accepted God’s grace and friendship is absolutely assured of eternal salvation.  But if they have sins that have left them impure at death, they must be purified to enter the joy of heaven (CCC 1030).  The purification in purgatory is entirely different that the punishment of the damned in hell.  Purgatory is, instead, that “cleansing fire” that Saint Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 3:15, 1 Pet 1:7).  This is why the Church prays for the dead, a practice that comes from the book of Maccabees in which we read: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46, cf. CCC 1032).

I tell people that Purgatory is really a gift.  It’s that time and experience of our spiritual life in which we are completely made ready for the life of heaven.  It’s kind of stereotypical for a Catholic to say this, but eternity can be likened to a party.  Those who freely accept the invitation freely offered enter in and enjoy the party.  This is heaven.  Those who reject the invitation outright are outside the party, and this is hell.  But imagine going to a party and you know that you’ve done or said something wrong to another person at the party, in particular the host.  You’re not going to be enjoying yourself with the guilt of that indiscretion on your heart.  So you need to do something to fix the relationship so that you can enjoy the party.  That’s what Purgatory is.  You still get to go to the party, but you have to make amends first.

All Souls Remembrance Mass

Tonight, we have come together to do what the writer of the books of Maccabees insist is a holy and pious thing: to pray for the souls of the dead.  We have come together also to do what the Liturgy of the Rite of Christian Burial tells us to do: to pray also for ourselves.  We gather to care for our loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, and we gather to let our Lord care for us, we who have been touched by love and wounded by loss, that we might be graced by faith.

I love what the third Eucharistic Prayer offers for Masses for the dead.  We’ll use it tonight, as I do for almost every funeral, but it’s nice sometimes to reflect on those words and let them enter into our prayer more fully.  So the prayer goes: “Remember your servant N. whom you have called from this world to yourself. Grant that he (she) who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection…”  Here the Church recognizes that our God does not leave us alone in death.  Death was never God’s will for the human person, rather death came as a result of sin, as Saint Paul reminds us so well.  But in this prayer, the Church recognizes that our God, whose intent is always for our salvation, took on our lowly form and assumed all its defects, including the capacity to die.  And so of the many ways that we are united with our Lord, one of them is through death.  And we recognize that as death was not the end for him, so if we have faith and follow our Lord, it will not be the end for us either.

The prayer continues: “…when from the earth he will raise up in the flesh those who have died, and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.”  Just as we have been united in death with our Lord, so he intends that we would be united with him in resurrection.  Our Lord intends that the glory of the Resurrection of our Lord would open for us the way to the Kingdom of God, that Kingdom for which we were created in the first place, that Kingdom which is the destination of our life-long journey.  In resurrection, we will be transformed.  The weakness of our flesh will be redeemed, our woundedness will be bound up, our disease will be healed, our sin will be wiped away, leaving nothing but the radiant glory of the very face of God.  Our bodies are not so profane nor so damaged that they can’t become glorious, by being united with our Lord in resurrection.

We continue to pray: “To our departed brothers and sisters, too, and to all who were pleasing to you at their passing from this life, give kind admittance into your kingdom.”  Here the Church acknowledges that the dead depend on our prayers.  We implore the Lord to give admittance to the Kingdom to our loved ones.  We pray that their sins would be forgiven, that their weaknesses would be overlooked, that their relationships would be purified, that whatever was less than glorious in them might be made fit for the Kingdom of God.  The Church recognizes that most of our dead brothers and sisters continue their journey to the Kingdom after death.  They do it with different, more splendid graces than we have on this earth, they take it up with perhaps fewer distractions than those that divert our attention from the goal.  Whatever is not purified on earth can be purified by the gift of Purgatory, for those who have faith, and for those who need grace.

Finally, the Church recognizes that we are all headed for the same goal, we and our loved ones who have died: “There we hope to enjoy for ever the fullness of your glory, when you will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall belike you for all the ages and praise you without end, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow in the world all that is good.”  The Kingdom is where all of our sadness is erased, and with eyes free from the tears of this life, we can finally see God as he is, and not as we would have him.  We can then be like him, caught up, really, in his life, one with him forever in Christ, receiving all that is good for all eternity.

Our greatest work of charity is to pray that our deceased loved ones would receive all these graces, this wondrous and holy gifts, from our God, who deeply longs that each one of his children would return to be one with him.  In praying for them, the Church extends its ministry to all of us who mourn, enabling us to know the love of God in our time of grief and sadness.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life, all who believe in him will not die forever – that’s perhaps a more accurate translation of his words in the Gospel today.  Death was never intended as our forever, as our final stop.  For to God, all are alive, just in different ways.  Praise God that he gives us life, and mercy, and grace, and resurrection.

Eternal rest grant unto all of our loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day)

One of the deep mysteries of the human experience lies in the realities of life and death. Everyone has, or will, experience the death of loved ones, sometimes after a long life, sometimes far too soon, always with feelings of sadness, regret, pain, grief and perhaps even anger or confusion.

That’s how grief works. It might seem sometimes like it would have been better to live without love, but we know deep down that that’s not true. Sadness and even death are temporary; love is eternal. As the Church’s vigil for the deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.” We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is that hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

Today, the Church gives us the grace of remembering, and praying for, all of our loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, and all the dead whose faith is known to God alone. The Church is great in wisdom in giving us this feast every year. Because even though on this day, we might shed a few tears, still we will have the grace of remembering the ones who have given us life, given us wisdom, those who have been Christ to us, those who have made God’s love tangibly present in our lives.

Even if the memories aren’t the best, and even if we struggle with the pain of past hurts mixed with the sorrow of grief, there is grace in remembering today. Maybe this day can be an occasion of healing, even if it’s just a little bit. Maybe our tears, mixed with the saving Blood of Christ, can wash and purify our wounded hearts and sorrowful souls. And certainly our prayers are heard by our God who gives us healing and brings our loved ones closer to him, purifying them of any stain of sin gathered along the journey of life.

That pain that perhaps we feel won’t all go away today. We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table, and that hole in our heart. But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the Blood of Christ. We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, with all of our hurts healed and relationships purified, in the kingdom that knows no end. The Eucharistic Prayer itself will tell us today that there will come a day when God “will wipe away every tear from our eyes. For seeing you, our God, as you are, we shall be like you for all the ages and praise you without end, through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow in the world all that is good.”

Eternal rest grant unto all of our departed loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day)

Today’s readings

This time of year always brings to mind the people I have loved that are no longer with us.  I miss my grandparents, an aunt and an uncle who died way too soon, a great uncle who was a special part of our family.  In a particular way, I miss my dad who died a few years ago and who I always wish was here to talk things over with.  I think about them often, and I am very much aware each time I celebrate Mass that they are with me in a special way.  Yes, with time, the grief has subsided a bit, and the days are a little easier.  But the memories, great memories, are still there, and their absence still leaves a hole in my heart.

But that’s okay.  That’s how grief works.  It might seem sometimes like it would have been better to live without love, but we know deep down that that’s not true.  Sadness and even death are temporary; love is eternal.  As the Church’s vigil for the deceased tells us, “all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.” We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is that hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

Today, the Church gives us the grace of remembering all of our loved ones who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, and all the dead whose faith is known to God alone.  The Church is great in wisdom in giving us this feast every year.  Because even though on this day, we might shed a few tears, still we will have the grace of remembering the ones who have given us life, given us wisdom, those who have been Christ to us, those who have made God’s love tangibly present in our lives.

But sometimes our relationships weren’t like that: sometimes there was abuse or a lack of love that gives people mixed feelings on a day such as this.  Even if the memories aren’t the best, and even if we struggle with the pain of past hurts mixed with the sorrow of grief, there is grace in remembering today.  Maybe this day can be an occasion of healing, even if it’s just a little bit.  Maybe our tears, mixed with the saving Blood of Christ, can wash and purify our wounded hearts and sorrowful souls.

And I have to tell you that it won’t all go away today.  We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table, and that hole in our heart, maybe even the pain of unresolved conflicts. But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the Blood of Christ. We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, with all of our hurts healed and relationships purified, in the kingdom that knows no end. The Eucharistic Prayer itself will tell us today that there will come a day when “every tear will be wiped away. On that day, we shall see you, our God, as you are. We shall become like you and praise you for ever through Christ our Lord, from whom all good things come.”

And so we pray: eternal rest grant unto all of our departed loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed

Today’s readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; I Corinthians 15:51-57; John 6:37-40

This past Sunday and Monday, I took a couple of days off.  I packed up early on Sunday and was out of the house by 6am, and took a 3 hour and 45 minute drive to see a friend, one of my classmates from seminary, who is a priest in the diocese of Springfield.  I visited with him all of Sunday and on Monday morning, then packed up just before noon and returned home.

I mention this because the trip itself was a bit unusual for me.  Usually, I’ll play the radio or my iPod in the car the whole way down, but for most of the trip this time, I traveled in silence.  I did that because I was aware that I was missing my dad in a special way.  He died a year ago in May, and I’ve been missing him a lot.  But I think I was missing him in a special way on this trip because Dad was great for road trips.  He’d get up before the crack of dawn, which is what I did, and he’d motor on toward whatever our destination was.  He loved to drive even long distances, and especially when I was a kid, the trip was kind of filled with expectation.  It wasn’t always fun getting up so early to leave, but it was kind of cool because it was a different experience, and as a kid, who could sleep the night before vacation anyway?

So many wonderful things continue to remind me of Dad.  I was sitting on the new deck at Mom’s house a couple of weeks ago.  We had intended Dad to sit out and enjoy the deck that summer, but he died just a few days before it could be completed.  He would have loved it; he always liked sitting outside and enjoying the neighborhood and his house.  So as I sat there on that deck and prayed my breviary, I found myself especially close to Dad.

As I’ve experienced these things over the last several weeks, I’ve been aware of my sense of loss t hat doesn’t ever seem to completely go away.  In some ways, that’s a good thing, because it reminds me how much I have loved and how much I was loved.  And through all of it, I have felt the abiding presence of God who is with us in all of our joys, and all of our sorrows.  I really feel like the danger of grieving is so miniscule compared with the danger of never having loved in our lives.

I’ve reflected on my experience of grief this past week.  I was with some of my priest friends who form a kind of support group for each other earlier in the week.  We were praying about this feast of All Souls, and talking about our experience of loss and grief.  I shared what came to me in that moment, and that was a profound sense of gratitude to my parents for having given me the opportunity to learn to grieve when I was little.  I remember when my grandfather, Mom’s Dad, was close to death.  Mom and Dad talked with me about what was going to happen, and we all cried and hugged, and I began the strange feeling of grief when I was just nine years old.  When the time came, as is the custom on both sides of our family, all of us went to the wake and funeral, little as we were.

Some people try to shield their children from that experience.  Indeed, our overly medicated society tries to protect us all from that experience of grief, white-washing it and moving on just as soon as possible.  But how grateful I am that my parents didn’t do that to me.  Through that experience, I learned to love more deeply, not less.  I learned that the people in my life are signs to me of God’s love and presence in my life.  I learned that grieving is part of life, that it’s natural, that it’s something we all experience, that it’s a sign of God’s love.  We have to learn to grieve, as soon as we have the opportunity, and not to be afraid of it, because grieving is a way that we remember and love and heal and grow.

Grief and loss can do a number of things to us, and that is what makes it so scary.  Some people can become fixated in their grief and can be taken by a kind of clinical depression.  For that, we must count on the expert assistance of counselors and therapists who can help us through the root causes of depression and help us to experience our grief in healthier ways.  But that doesn’t mean that everyone who experiences loss should be medicated or is even ill.  If you’re moving through grief and continue to be aware of the gifts of your relationship with those you have lost, and continue to know that God is present with you even in your pain, then you’re probably grieving in healthy ways.  But if you’re lost and have lost sight of God’s love, then you might need to speak with someone about your grief.

Jesus said in the Beatitudes “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  What makes this a particularly outrageous statement is that in biblical language, the word “blessed” here means “happy.”  So how is it that mourners are actually happy?  And the answer to that is that mourners have the wonderful experience of God’s presence in their grief.  When we grieve, we are especially close to God, close to our God who grieves when we are hurt, who may allow the bad things that happen in our lives, but never wills them, whose heart breaks whenever we sin and turn away from him.  We are made in the image and likeness of our God who is no stranger to grief, especially in the person of Jesus Christ, who grieved at the death of his friend Lazarus, who grieved with those he ministered to, and whose heart was broken when he saw the sadness of his mother at the foot of the cross.  Our God accepts grief head-on, and so should we, aware that in our grieving we are closer to God than ever, and have the benefit of his abiding presence in our pain.

On this feast of the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, I could reflect on the difference between All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  But you could read that in the bulletin.  I could tell you all about purgatory and the need for us to pray for the dead.  But there’s another time and place for that too, I think.  Instead, I have chosen to reflect on our experience of grief, and I’ve done that because it’s an experience we all have, on some level, at some time in our lives.  I want you to know how very natural grief is, and how very blessed an experience it is.

Death is always a time of great sadness, but our Liturgy teaches us that we who believe in the Lord Jesus must never grieve as if we have no hope.  Our hope is always in Christ, the one who knows our grief and pain, and is with us in every moment of our lives, most especially when we are in pain.  The Church teaches us that if we believe in God and do his will, we can be reunited with all of our loved ones forever one day.  For the believer, the hopelessness of death is always overcome by the great hope of God’s grace.

We will hear later in this Liturgy that for those who believe in Christ, life is changed, not ended.  Because Jesus has died and risen from the dead to pay the price for our sins, we have been given the great gift of salvation.  And so we know that death only separates us from those we love for a short time, and that death never has the last word because Christ has triumphed over death.  The beginning and end of everything is Christ, and Christ is with us in our first moments, and also in our last.  He is with us in our pain and with us in our joy.  He helps us to remember our loved ones with love that continues beyond our death and beyond the grave.  Grief and loss and pain are temporary things for us.  Love is eternal, love never ends, love can never be destroyed by death, love leads us all to the great glory of the resurrection and eternal light in that kingdom where Christ has conquered everything, even death itself.

Eternal rest grant unto all of our loved ones, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.  May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

All Souls: The Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed

Readings: Wisdom 3:1-9 | Revelation 21:1-7 | Matthew 25:31-40

0871 Jesus resurrection christian clipartWhen I celebrated this Liturgy last year, the homily I gave was pretty straightforward. It was theologically accurate and liturgically sound. This year, the experience is a little different for me, and so will the homily be different. Many of you know that this past May, my Dad died, and the experience of grieving his loss has helped me to personalize my theology and my pastoral care, and my preaching. Today I hope you don't mind if I reminisce a bit about my Dad, because I do it so that perhaps it may touch something in you to help you in your grieving and give you hope in your sorrows.

Lots of things remind me about Dad. Whenever I was staying at the house overnight, and I'd get up in the morning to go shower, I would pass by his room and he would still be in bed. But he'd be awake, and would always say "good morning." I miss those good mornings now. Just the other day, Mom and I were out staining the deck. When we were getting started, I was searching the garage for some painting supplies. When I got frustrated and couldn't find what I was looking for, I said "okay Dad, where did you put it?" And the next drawer I opened had all the things I needed, right where he left them. I couldn't help but smile and say "thanks" because Dad was the only one who knew where anything was in that garage. Not that it was messy; it was very organized, but he alone knew the scheme!

In the days and weeks and months since May, my family has gathered to celebrate many events – as best we could. I remember on Mother's Day, just after Dad died, we gathered at my aunt's house and I celebrated Mass there. When we were getting ready, I thought to myself, "Oh wait, we can't start yet … somebody's missing." As I looked around, I realized just exactly who we were missing. It's times like that that we go on with a bit of a heavy heart. We have told the stories, and laughed about the memories. That has helped some, but there's still a hole in our hearts.

These days, remembering is hard for all of us I think. As we come close to the first holidays without our loved ones, we will miss celebrating with them. There will be an empty place at the table, an extra Christmas stocking, nobody to help find the burnt out light bulb on the Christmas lights that keeps the whole string from working. We feel grief more intensely at the holidays, because the world is rejoicing, but we are hurting. I remember a time visiting a gift store in Glen Ellyn years ago, just after one of my grandmothers died. It was all decked out for Christmas and looked so very homey. I was overcome with a wave of depression that socked me from out of nowhere. I had no idea what that was about, and I had to leave in a hurry. Later, I realized that it was about grieving my grandmother.

And so I think it is the Church's great wisdom that has us stop and celebrate All Souls Day before the holidays are upon us. Because we are a people who believe that there is hope in the midst of sorrow, joy in the midst of pain, resurrection that follows death, and love that survives the grave and leads us to the one who made us for himself. There has to be something that gets us through all these hard times, and I think the Church gives us that something today.

In the Liturgy, the words of hope that we find lead us back to the Cross and Resurrection. Death is not the end. Love does not come to an end at the grave. As the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer will tell us today: "Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven." Our loved ones who have been people of faith have been made new by passing through the gates of death. Their happiness is our hope; the grace and blessing that they now share will one day be ours.

But I will acknowledge that even that glimmer of hope doesn't erase all the pain. We are left with tears and loneliness, and that empty place at the table. But sadness and pain absolutely do not last forever, because death and sin have been ultimately defeated by the blood of Christ. We can hope in the day that our hearts will be healed, and we will be reunited with our loved ones forever, in the kingdom that knows no end. The Eucharistic Prayer itself will tell us tonight that there will come a day when "every tear will be wiped away. On that day, we shall see you, our God, as you are. We shall become like you and praise you for ever through Christ our Lord, from whom all good things come."

Perhaps sometimes it feels like it would have been better not to have loved at all, because then maybe the pain wouldn't be so great. We know that's not true. Sadness and pain are temporary. Love is eternal. As the Church's Vigil for the Deceased tells us, "all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death." We know that death only separates us for a short time, and even though there is a hole in our heart, the sadness that we feel is way better than never having loved at all, never having had our loved ones in our lives at all.

The pain doesn't just go away. There is no time when grief is "over." I miss Dad in many ways, all the time. You miss your loved ones in exactly the same way. There are times when our grief overwhelms us, comes at us out of nowhere. But many are the times when our memories provide us healing and joy. My nephew had a very close relationship with Dad, who he called "Boppy." He often dreamed of Dad and said to his mom, my sister, a week or so ago, "I'm sad because I didn't dream of Boppy last night. I like to dream about Boppy." Our dreams, our memories are gifts from our God who insists that we always know that we are loved. Sometimes it hurts, but ultimately it heals. Sadness is temporary. Love is eternal.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.