How many funerals have you attended where you’ve heard relative after relative, and even the priest himself, talk about how the decedent is, without a doubt, in Heaven with God? “Ole’ Joe…he’s in Heaven right now playing poker, laughing it up.” It’s understandable. People are in mourning, and the certainty of eternal bliss helps to counteract the grief they’re experiencing in the here and now. While such proclamations may provide comfort to us on earth, are they realistic? Are they in line with Catholic teaching on the spiritual works of mercy, which we are obliged to follow?
Several years ago, at my grandfather’s wake, a “pastoral associate” from the parish gave a little reflection and declared him to be a saint in heaven, and that we should pray to him. Now, my grandfather was a good, devout Catholic, and I have reasonable hope that he died in God’s grace. But as Catholics, we are still obliged to pray for him. He would ask that of us. What a disservice to my grandfather to ignore that reality and presume he’s already in Heaven, just to lessen our own sorrow!
If everyone goes straight to Heaven, per our declarations, what is the point of the time-honored Catholic practices of offering Masses for the dead, of praying for the dead, of offering sacrifices for the dead? The fact is that, short of a formal canonization, we simply do not know if someone is in Heaven. That is why it is a spiritual work of mercy to pray for the dead, not instantly canonize them. If the soul of grandpa or grandma, mom or dad, friend or acquaintance, is in Purgatory, we are not being of any help to them by convincing ourselves, in order to assuage our grief, of their presence in Heaven. While grief is natural and necessary in such times, it doesn’t give us a green light to close our eyes to reality.
How many souls are in Purgatory right now who have no one praying for them on earth because those who knew them have simply presumed they’re already in Heaven? Along with many other elements of Catholic devotional life today, praying for the dead is another practice that has been largely forgotten. It makes us feel better, so we embrace it. And it’s no coincidence that the drop in Confession availability and recognition of personal sin has coincided with the do-it-yourself canonization phenomenon.
Let’s not confuse hope for eternal bliss with certainty of eternal bliss.
The Eucharistic celebration, in which we proclaim that Christ has died and risen, and will come again, is a pledge of the future glory in which our bodies too will be glorified. Celebrating the memorial of our salvation strengthens our hope in the resurrection of the body and in the possibility of meeting once again, face to face, those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. In this context I wish, together with the synod fathers, to remind all the faithful of the importance of prayers for the dead, especially the offering of Mass for them, so that, once purified, they can come to the beatific vision of God. A rediscovery of the eschatological dimension inherent in the Eucharist, celebrated and adored, will help sustain us on our journey and comfort us in the hope of glory (cf Rom 5:2; Ti 2:13) ~Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis 32.