Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sunday 26C. "Send Lazarus!": the dearly departed, the possibility of purgatory and the power of prayer

Everyone desires the reward of heaven for the dearly departed but sure and certain knowledge of their fate is not possible except in the case of canonization. That is where prayer comes in.

"Send Lazarus!" is the cry of the rich man of the parable in Luke chapter 16 who is able to communicate with Abraham from his place of torment so, as Pope Benedict has written, he is not in a place of permanent suffering, or hell. Hell is a final, full, and eternal state of separation from God, which precludes any possibility of communication with anyone who does not also share the state of eternal damnation.

"In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Lk 16:19-31), Jesus admonishes us through the image of a soul destroyed by arrogance and opulence, who has created an impassable chasm between himself and the poor man; the chasm of being trapped within material pleasures; the chasm of forgetting the other, of incapacity to love, which then becomes a burning and unquenchable thirst. We must note that in this parable Jesus is not referring to the final destiny after the Last Judgement, but is taking up a notion found, inter alia, in early Judaism, namely that of an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced. " (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 44)

The Holy Father proposes the story of the rich man and Lazarus as a call to hope for all of us who seek life abundantly and thus should all the more urge those we leave behind to pray for us.

"This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell[37]. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are[38]." (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 45)

Thus it is possible as a result of man's free will to turn so completely away from God and neighbor as to choose eternal separation from the possibility of love, which cannot be enjoyed apart from God.

"The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs." (CCC 1035)

So the rich man, rather, is in a state of purgation or purification, commonly known by the name of purgatory in Church teaching.

"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. (CCC 1031)

Purgatory results from two interpenetrating realities: God's mercy for those who have truly repented of sin before death and the temporal punishment, or attachment, to sin that makes it impossible for some who have died to immediately enter into a state of beatitude in heaven.

"The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the 'old man' and to put on the 'new man.'” (CCC 1473)

If death intervenes between repentance and completion of the process of putting on the "new man" then the grace of God's mercy must complete the work before the soul of the faithful departed is prepared for the beatific vision, or full communion with God in heaven.

Abraham describes the reality we know well: many do not believe in Christ even though He rose from the dead. But because He did intercessory prayer becomes possible. Abraham and the saints intercede for those who do not already share perfect beatitude with God. We on earth are able to share in the perfect prayer of Christ in holy Mass with the power of His saving grace which hastens the day of full communion with God for the departed who yet lack it.

"In the communion of saints, 'a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.' In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin." (CCC 1475)

It is a duty, a privilege and a joy to know that we can pray for the dead with whom we still enjoy communion or life in Christ. We can send relief, be as a Lazarus who dips his finger into the water of life and shares it with those who have gone before us, easing their suffering and hastening their eternal happiness with God.

" ’In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and 'because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins' she offers her suffrages for them.’ Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” (CCC 958)

The Church at all times and in all places commends the souls of all the faithful departed to the mercy of God.

"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.’ "

(CCC 1032)


Art: South Portal from the Church of Saint Pierre, Moissac, c. 1115-30.

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