Sunday, 2 November 2008

All Souls Year A

Why do we celebrate All Souls Day? We know why we celebrated All Saints yesterday. We, who are struggling on our pilgrim way to God, celebrated our solidarity with those who are already in their heavenly glory. We look longingly at those who have blazed a trail of glory for us to follow. There, in their triumphant joy, they urge us on in our race. Today, All Souls Day also highlights our solidarity with the departed faithful. Both All Saints and All Souls are expressions of our shared supernatural solidarity otherwise known as the Communion of Saints. Thus, we who are battling against the Evil One, remember those who are not ready yet for full fellowship with God in the glory of heaven. All Souls is tied closely to the Catholic belief in Purgatory. A good point to clarify is that God’s forgiveness is immediate but the effects of sin remains with us even after we are forgiven. An apt example to illustrate what this means is to look at a reformed alcoholic. His sin of substance abuse is forgiven but the effects of alcohol abuse will take a longer time to dissipate or subside. Thus, for those who have died, Purgatory is the process or the state whereby they undergo the necessary purification of the effects of sin before they attain the beatific vision of God.

Today I would like to talk about the “effects of sin” and how our understanding of it may help us in this life as well as the course of action to take with regard to those who are in Purgatory. Imagine this scenario. Stephen is 26 years old. He intends to get married. He walks into the parish office to make arrangement to marry Ah Lian who is not a Catholic. Stephen’s last confession was in Standard Four and he hasn’t been confirmed yet. He occasionally attends Mass and mostly on major Solemnities such as Christmas and Easter. He doesn’t know much about the spiritual preparation necessary before marriage, the rite of marriage itself, and he knows next to nothing about the theology of marriage. He wants a garden wedding and tries to set the wedding date for 1st December because Ah Lian’s family had consulted a Medium and had been told that 1st December would be the auspicious day for a wedding. In short, he believes that the Church should facilitate what he wants or desires. When we asked him to fulfil a few conditions before we could settle on the date, he became angry and stormed out of the office, disgusted that the “Church” did not understand his needs but instead was too rigid. Sadly, Stephen is not alone in this thinking.

The Church, like civil society, is governed by Canon Law formulated in accordance with the understanding of who we are in relation to God. It tries to establish reasonable norms of action for intelligent and responsible people. As such, Canon Law defines how the Church should be run in such a way that our vocation as Christians can be fulfilled. Similar to Civil Law, Canon Law has a system of sanction, a system of discipline when something goes wrong. The sanctions applied indicate that the Church is concerned with 1. Repairing scandal 2. Restoring justice and 3. Reforming offenders.

In short, our “form of punishment” is rehabilitative and not punitive. We do not punish for the sake of punishment. This is reminiscent of Matt 18: 15-18. If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone. If he remains unrepentant take two brothers along with you. And, if he refuses, report to the community. And if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a gentile or a tax collector. The ideal intent here is to gently coax a sinner back into relationship. Even “ex-communication” is for the sake of the unrepentant sinner coming to his or her senses so as to excite a desire for reconciliation with the community.

This seemingly long excursus, digression or meandering allows us to better understand what we do on All Souls Day. The assumption that Stephen and many have is that “rules” or “obligations” or “duties” are too demanding. The Church should be more accommodating and more forgiving. Furthermore, this idea of “accommodation” to human frailty is transferred to God. Not that God is not forgiving, it is just that God is now powerless and indulgent. He cannot help but forgive. The result is that God exists to fulfil our desires. A God who expects a bit more of us, a God who asks us to be what He has made us to be, is just too demanding. Stephen in trying to marry Ah Lian has actually done away with God. His understanding of Church has subtly writes God off. For Stephen, there is no concept of consequence except the "here and now". In fact, for many of us, there is no difference between God’s forgiveness and the consequence or the effects of sins.

God’s forgiveness does not wipe away the suffering that results as a consequence of our sins. Christ hanging on the Cross between the Two Thieves promised the Good Thief heaven but He didn’t come down to remove the Good Thief from his cross. Thus, Purgatory reminds us that what we do has a rippling effect long after we are forgiven. Ask a woman who has had the misfortune of making a wrong decision of aborting a child. Even after countless confessions through which sins are forgiven, long after forgiveness is obtained, the trauma remains still. So, the reality of Purgatory is an encouragement to think, to reflect and to repent.

Otherwise, the whole idea of “purgation” becomes nonsensical because there are no longer effects of sin to be “purified”. Everyone goes to heaven regardless of what has gone on in his or her life. Yesterday, I mentioned something about movie and music stars proposing ideals or models that fall short of our vocation as pilgrims on the path to holiness. Nothing challenges us anymore and the result of a God who makes no demands on us renders Purgatory unnecessary and everything that we do for the faithful departed redundant.

Purgatory is a reminder that we will always fall short of this forgiving God and that is why we need to be purified before we enter into His presence. Purgatory makes sense because of the Communion of Saints. This means that our prayers, our charity and the celebration of the Sacrifice of Calvary, that is, our Mass can aid those in the state of being purified. This month of November, we remember that because of the goodness of God, our dead continue to live as they prepare themselves to enter the full vision of God’s goodness, beauty and truth. Even though imperfect, nevertheless, what is important is that they live in God, and they live in our hearts. That is why we bless the columbarium and graves. Today, we pray for them who need our prayers as well as ask them to pray for us.