Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 4, 2018 – Year B
Readings: Dt 6:2-6 / Ps 18 / Heb 7:23-28 / Mk 12:28B-34
by Rev. Paul O’Donnell Duggan, Guest Celebrant
This month of November is dedicated to the souls in Purgatory, and the Church sets aside the entire month for us to pray for the dead. So the question is, “What actually is Purgatory?” Because it exists in eternity, and the only experience we have is that of time, our knowledge is scanty. We don’t know an awful lot about the mystery of the next life, because we go by time – present, past, future.
The best explanation I can think of goes back to my boyhood in Ireland. My father was a butcher, and the family lived in the same building with the butcher shop. Several houses down the street was the pub, where four lovely daughters lived. The youngest daughter, Sheila, was my girlfriend. (Then of course, God called me to the priesthood, and I didn’t see Sheila again for sixty years. Last October I was in Ireland, and I heard that Sheila’s sister, Kathleen, had died. So I went to concelebrate the funeral with two other priests, and I saw Sheila sitting in the front pew sobbing. One of her other sisters said to her, “Sheila, don’t be worried. Kathleen’s gone to Heaven.” And she answered, “I’m not crying about her; it’s him up on the altar I’m crying about!” I never saw her after that.)
So when I was a boy, I had the most terrible job, my father being a butcher. We had our own slaughterhouse, and that is where I worked – where we killed the cows and the sheep. My clothes were filthy when I finished work. If I was going out with Sheila that evening, I wouldn’t dream of seeing her without going home for a shower and a change of clothes.
That’s what Purgatory is. Purgatory is where the filth of sins we have done that we maybe have forgotten about, or maybe we didn’t think they were sins in the first place, are washed away. Perhaps the sins were not really that bad, but the stain of that sin remained.
So Purgatory is like having a great heavenly shower and getting rid of all that stuff that’s there. So when I die, I won’t go straight to heaven first; I will go to Purgatory first and get cleansed.
Just as I would not have dreamed of allowing Sheila to see me in the state I was in when I left work in my father’s slaughterhouse, I would not dream of allowing Jesus to see me until that cleansing. When I meet Jesus face to face for the first time, I want to be purified – with a soul that is shining.
So Purgatory is that place. How long does it last? Again, we do not know, because that is Eternity, and all we have is time. But I do like Pope Benedict’s opinion on the matter; he thinks it is probably an instant. I like that.
What is the best way to remember our dead? What is the best way to pray for the souls in Purgatory? When Pope Benedict and his brother visited Germany, the first place they visited was their parents’ graves. One of the best ways to remember our dead, particularly during this month of November, is to visit the graves of loved ones and pray for the dead. Why should we pray for the dead? Because God tells us it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead. So if God tells us that, there must be a Purgatory.
Another way is to set up a corner or a sacred space in your home. Put a table there, with pictures of your deceased loved ones, a cross, and a candle. Then set a time for your family to gather each day and spend a few moments there and pray for them. It is also a great idea to talk about the person who has died. If that brings tears, remember that tears are a sign of love.
Remember that in our church, we write names of our deceased in the Book of Life or on cards that remain on the altar during the month of November. Jesus was asked which of the 612 commandments was the greatest, and he answered that we should love God and love our neighbor. So in putting the names on cards and in the Book of Life, we are fulfilling that second commandment.
And of course we have to remember that someday we too will be dead. I hope that when you hear I have died, you will write my name in the Book of Life and remember to pray for me. We try to avoid it and seldom talk about it, but death is a part of life. November is a great time to pray for the dead and to think about our own death, and remember that Jesus said that we are not far from the Kingdom of God.