Saturday, November 6th, 2021

A November Sermon on the Catholic Dead

Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment, so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many (Hebrews 9).

Each November, I think of something one of my seminary professors told us: “Fathers,” he said, “the dead are members of your parish, too.” And so I’ve thought of it like that ever since. The dead are members of my parish; I am still their parish priest.

But I don’t think that attitude is out of place for the rest of us, either. Is it too much for you to think of the dead of this parish as your fellow parishioners still?

Catholics are not defeated by the mystery of death. We know the One who has risen from the dead, and therefore we know that death is not the last word on anyone’s life. It’s just as we heard in today’s epistle: “it is appointed that human beings die once, and after the judgement . . .” So it turns out that judgement is in fact that last word. Which is where our prayers enter in. All our prayers for the dead are for their eternal well-being—that Christ the judge would continue to pour out his mercy upon them.

Again, we Catholics are not defeated by the mystery of death. In the Roman West, remember where the first Catholics gathered for Holy Mass: not in churches (which had not yet been built) but in houses and in the catacombs. There are no doubt a number of reasons for this. First, the catacombs were places of solitude and concealment: persecuted Catholics could gather there with some degree of secrecy. The catacombs are also the place where the martyrs are buried; and so Catholics would return to their tombs to pray and to offer Mass.

From those two reasons, to my thinking another reason emerges. Catholics are not defeated by death; therefore they are not afraid of the places where the dead are buried. The Romans could be a highly superstitious people, especially with regard to the dead and their places of burial. But Catholics had nothing to fear when it came to the dead, and this made them spiritually strong in two ways: first, it made them avoid all forms of superstition, especially those connected with the dead; and second, it gave them peace and courage in the face of the mystery of death.

Friends, we ought to be reminded of these same things today, and all throughout the month of November. It is part of my duty to care for the dead; you share in this duty, too—it is a spiritual work of mercy to pray for the living and the dead. Moreover, when we have devotion to our beloved dead, two spiritual goods come to us—as they did to our brothers and sisters in the Faith so long ago. If we pray for our dead in the spirit of the Church, we will avoid all superstitious and occult ways of thinking, especially with regard to death.

If we frequently remember and pray for our dead, we gradually cease to fear death: because we see what goods the Church has stored up for the dying and the dead. Ultimately, we do not die alone. Our very death belongs to the Church; and the more we accustom ourselves to the reality now, the more we will be prepared when that last hour finds us. And in truth, what grace could be more urgent than that? For it is the case that Catholics do not spend their lives waiting for death: they spend their lives preparing for it. And I can assure you, that those are two very different things.


{Art Credit: Luis de Madrazo, The Burial of St Cecelia in the Catacombs of Rome}     

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