year of mercy

“Let’s Finish Strong!”

It used to be a fairly common Catholic experience to “make a retreat.” Lay men and women would go to a retreat house or a church and be led (usually by a priest or religious) in praying and meditating on God. (This may sound quaint to many of you, but it truly is a wonderful experience!) Often, these are/were silent retreats: the retreatants spend considerable time in silence: reading, praying, meditating on God.

There was a priest who led many, many of these retreats. On Sunday mornings, as many retreatants were beginning to think of heading home and the tasks that awaited them there, this priest would tell them a story. He (the priest) recalled a basketball coach at a school where he had taught. The coach – whether his team was winning or losing – would gather his players just before the final quarter and say, “Let’s finish strong, boys! Let’s finish strong!” He wanted his team to know that, whatever the circumstances, they keep on playing hard right until the end. The priest would then tell his retreatants, “Let’s finish strong! Don’t let this final day of your retreat slip away – finish strong!”

Were that same priest giving us advice on the Year of Mercy, he would likely tell us, “Let’s finish strong!” We are in the final days of the Year of Mercy (which ends the last weekend of November, as we begin the new liturgical year.) We must not let these final days slip away; we must finish strong!

Maybe the Year of Mercy has not been something you’ve engaged much in. Perhaps, much of the past year has been difficult for you. Often, we are busy just trying to keep body and soul intact and “extras” are too hard to even think about. No worries – you can still “finish strong.” Indeed, the last of the Corporal Works of Mercy is to “bury the dead.” Given that we begin this last month of the Year of Mercy by celebrating the Solemnity of All Saints and the feast of All Souls’, it is a good time to ponder how we can do this. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops makes these suggestions:

Funerals give us the opportunity to grieve and show others support during difficult times.  Through our prayers and actions during these times we show our respect for life, which is always a gift from God, and comfort to those who mourn.

  • Send a card to someone who has recently lost a loved one.  Make your own card and use some of these prayers.
  • Visit the cemetery and pray for those you have lost.
  • Spend time planning your own funeral mass, read through the Order of Christian Funerals and find our hope in the Resurrection.

At the blog, Catholic All Year, one mom suggests that visiting a cemetery to put flowers on graves or learning about ancestors is a good way to involve kids in this work of mercy. If perhaps what you’d like to focus on is prayer during these final days of the Year of Mercy, wonderful! Consider praying for the dead. As Fr. William J. Byron, SJ, explains, the dead need our prayers:

[This] relates to our readiness, our preparedness, our freedom from sin, and our satisfaction of what the Church refers to as “temporal punishment due to sin” in order that the union of a human being — a “mere mortal” — with the sinless God is possible.

What is this temporal punishment? Let me suggest that it is a condition of “unreadiness” for eternal union with the Holy Trinity. In one sense you are ready, because you’ve expressed your sorrow and your sins have been forgiven. But in all probability you’re not quite ready, because your love of God at the moment of death may be less than wholehearted, less than perfect. Spiritually, you are right with God (your sins have been forgiven), but you need a bit of tidying up before being taken fully into God’s loving and eternal embrace.

Purgatory is the cure for your condition of unreadiness. It’s the process of purification.

Hence, we pray for the dead to beg God to move that process along. It all relates to God’s love and grace, that they may enfold the souls of the departed and keep them eternally secure.

What better way to end this beautiful Year of Mercy than to pray for our brothers and sisters who have preceded us in death?

Regardless of you and your family choose to finish this Year of Mercy, “let finish strong!”

All Saints

The Saints Go Marching In: Not Truly Dead, But Alive In Christ

Tomorrow, Catholics celebrate All Saints’ Day and Wednesday is the celebration of All Souls’. The Church knows that there are many holy men, women and children who will never be formally recognized as saints; the celebration of All Saints’ allows us to ponder our own destiny with the multitude of holy souls now enjoying God’s eternal love and presence. All Souls’ Day reminds us that, as Catholics, we never presume that someone is in Heaven, and our prayers for the dead are necessary and good. The Catechism states:

1054 Those who die in God’s grace and friendship imperfectly purified, although they are assured of their eternal salvation, undergo a purification after death, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of God.

1055 By virtue of the “communion of saints,” the Church commends the dead to God’s mercy and offers her prayers, especially the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, on their behalf.


Catholics are often accused of praying to the dead (Ok, we kinda do that. It’s called “intercession.”) or worshiping the dead (No, we don’t.) While we understand that our earthly bodies with die, we know our soul is eternal. It is that soul which God created and has set in place for all eternity, made to be with Him forever.

At the core of the practice of praying to the saints is the belief that the saints are alive in Christ and full members of the community of believers, the Mystical Body of Christ. As St. Paul proclaims:

“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39)

When we live a life of grace and virtue, if you “put to death the deeds of the body,” then we will live (Rom 8:13). Yes, every person’s time on this earth must come to an end, but if we die in grace and righteousness, then we’ll live forever with God in heaven. The fact that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – prophets who died a long time ago – can still be declared by Jesus to be the God of the living (cf. Mt 22:32) is proof that the saints are very much alive. [emphasis added]

In 1938, jazz legend Louis Armstrong recorded, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Like many Gospel and jazz songs, the origins of this song are unclear, and there are several versions of it. However, the jazz version remains the best known. It is a “folk version” of our wish to join in the heavenly “parade” of holy men, women and children:

Oh, when the trumpet sounds its call
Oh, when the trumpet sounds its call
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the horsemen begin to ride
Oh, when the horsemen begin to ride
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in.

We are meant to desire Heaven. Each and every one of us should consider ourselves destined to be saints; it is only our sinful choices that keep us from this. We “want to be in that number:” those who have overcome sin, by the grace of God, and then die in the peace of Christ. Tomorrow, as we begin the month of November, we pause to thank God for the saintly lives we look to imitate, for the men and women we have known personally who strived to be like Christ in their own lives and now have moved on from this world, and to remember to pray for the dead – for we know that they are not truly dead, but alive in Christ.

Below, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis offers his take on the “Saints” hymn. He calls it a song of “revelation and redemption.” It’s not a bad way to kick off the month of November for Catholics, as we pray for our dead, and look forward to joining the saints in Heaven.


The Church Suffering: Purgatory

Last week, we discussed briefly the states of the Church: military, triumphant and suffering. This week, we will take a closer look at each.

The Catholic Church teaches that each human being has an immortal soul, created in God’s image and likeness. It is our personal responsibility to make sure that our soul is in a state of grace – free from sin. This is not to say that we do not sin, but rather that we seek forgiveness for our sins. Should we harm another person, we must seek their forgiveness. Should we violate God’s commandments and Church teaching, we must seek forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

We all know, however, that sin has lasting effects. When we harm a relationship with a loved one, we know that it takes time, trust and honesty to rebuild that relationship. And so it is with God.

Every immortal soul has but one of two eternal destinations: Heaven or Hell. Yet God, in His infinite mercy and wisdom allows for purification of souls even after death, which we call Purgatory. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

This is the Church suffering: souls who know that the glory of God awaits them, but who must first be purified of sin.

Every Sunday, as a Church, we pray in the Creed of our belief of “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The Church suffering is part of that unified Church. They are not souls relegated to some other place where we have no relationship with them. They are not behind some sort of celestial barrier or imprisoned forever. No, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, in need of our prayers.

Fr. John Hardon, SJ, was a renowned theologian and speaker. Here are some of his teachings on Purgatory and the souls of the Church suffering:

The Poor Souls are the souls of those people who died in the friendship of God. But they still have some suffering to undergo for the sins they had committed during their lives on earth. It is the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church that there is a purgatory. As the word itself indicates, purgatory is the state of those who still have to be cleansed of the penalty which they owe for their past offenses against God…

It must seem strange to speak of devotion to the Poor Souls. But it is not really strange. Devotion to the Poor Souls has two sides: our side and the side of the souls in purgatory.

On their side, the Poor Souls are united with us in the one Kingdom of Christ. They can pray and obtain blessings for us here on earth. They are united, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, with the pilgrim Church in the Communion of Saints. We are therefore encouraged to invoke their aid, with a confidence of being heard by those who understand our needs. They know from their own experience what it means to carry the cross here on earth.

On our side we are to do everything we can to help the Poor Souls in the Church Suffering. The sufferings in purgatory are not the same for all. They depend on each person’s degree of sinfulness. St. Thomas Aquinas held that the least pain in purgatory is greater than the worst pain in this life. St. Bonaventure held that the worst suffering after death was greater than the worst suffering on earth, but the same could not be said regarding the least pain in purgatory. In general, however, we should say that the pains of purgatory are greater than those on earth.

Remember that devotion to the Poor Souls is really a covenant between them and us. We pray and sacrifice for them, They can pray and suffer for us. They appreciate whatever help we give them, to lessen their suffering and to shorten their stay in Purgatory. They will continue to show their appreciation when we join them in a heavenly eternity. [emphasis added]

Again, the Church is united, our souls in need of each others care and prayers. While the Church suffering may seem harsh, it is the act of a loving God: to allow for the cleansing of preparation of souls before they are able to be in the presence of God. Further, what a terrific act of love by God that we are able to be in community with these souls, and they with us. We pray for each other, we suffer (always in unity with Christ) for each other, we look forward to being in the presence of God together for all eternity. And so we pray:

O gentle Heart of Jesus, ever present in the Blessed Sacrament, ever consumed with burning love for the poor captive souls in Purgatory, have mercy on them.
Be not severe in Your judgments, but let some drops of Your Precious Blood fall upon the devouring flames.
And, Merciful Savior, send Your angels to conduct them to a place of refreshment, light and peace.

three states

Our Church: Suffering, Militant, Triumphant

When most of us think of “Church,” we tend to think of a physical building or place. Perhaps it is our parish church or the church where we grew up. Maybe we see soaring spires or stained glass windows donated by immigrant families a century and a half ago. Perhaps it is St. Peter’s we envision, with the pope on the balcony addressing the crowds.

Yes, indeed. All of these are “church.” But since Church is also the Mystical Body of Christ, we cannot say that any of those places are only Church. Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is present. That is Church as well.  Our homes, where prayers are taught, forgiveness and mercy are learned, and the covenant of marriage lived out is the domestic church.

Beyond this even, we belong to a Church that defies both time and space, because God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – defy all laws of physics. We have been given mortal bodies but immortal souls, souls marked with the sign of the cross at our baptism and that sign is eternal.

Theologians have long taught that the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, has three states: suffering, militant and triumphant. 

The Church, the Mystical Body, exists on this earth, and is called the Church militant, because its members struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. The Church suffering means the souls in Purgatory. The Church triumphant is the Church in heaven. The unity and cooperation of the members of the Church on earth, in Purgatory, in Heaven is also called the Communion of Saints.

If you are reading this, you are part of the church militant. That’s a strong phrase, isn’t it? We think of soldiers in dress uniform, parading by officers. Worse, it conjures up images of soldiers in trenches, with explosions and noise and peril.

But if you think of these images in spiritual terms, they are quite accurate. We work hard to do our very best for God, to not only look good on the outside, but the inside as well. This takes training and practice, and leadership . Further, in our world today, we are surrounded by violence, attacks on our faith and families; we must fight for our faith and our freedom.

While our souls are immortal, our bodies are not; it hurts to lose our loved ones, but we rest assured in faith that their souls – should we care for them properly – will enter into the glory of Heaven. Some souls are not prepared at the time of death to face God, not because He is mean or angry or vengeful, but because we must be purified in order to stand in front of His awesome glory. We truly must be cleansed.

In very simple terms, it’s like the little boy who has been outside playing all day. He has dug hols to find worms, inspected mushrooms on his hands and knees, snuck over to the neighbor’s orchard to steal an apple or two, caught tadpoles and frogs, teased the neighbor girl with a snake. When he arrives home for dinner, his mother tells him they are going to have dinner with Father’s boss, and the boy needs to be cleaned up. He is subjected to Mother’s scrubbing: behind the ears, under the nails. literally cleaned from head to toe. When he is done, the boy is fairly glowing (maybe even a bit raw) from his “purification.” And so it is with Purgatory.

The Church triumphant consists of saints: those known to us and those known only to God. This should be the goal of every Christian: to have lived a life worthy, so that when it comes to an end, we may to stand in front of Almighty God with a soul as pure as it was the day we were baptized.

Monday, we’ll continue discussing t he three parts of the living Church, the Body of Christ.