The Feast of All Souls is an opportunity for all of us to contemplate the subject of death. The Gospel often tells us to be prepared for the Lord's coming. In the Gospel of Matthew (25:1-13) Jesus asks us if we are prepared for his coming to meet us: are we foolish or are we wise? We are told of the Last Judgement, which each one of us must one day experience. So what happens to our body and our soul after death?
In the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (205) we are told: "After death, which is the separation of the body and the soul, the body becomes corrupt while the soul, which is immortal, goes to meet the judgment of God and awaits its reunion with the body when it will rise transformed at the time of the return of the Lord. How the resurrection of the body will come about exceeds the possibilities of our imagination and understanding."
God has entrusted us in this life with the power to make of ourselves what we aspire to be - forever. We are given by God free will: to live is to make choices. We can choose freely the way of God and His word or we can choose to place our priorities somewhere else.
Death marks the final choice in a pilgrimage of choices throughout life - with God or without God. The Catechism Compendium (206) informs us:
"Dying in Christ Jesus means to die in the state of God's grace without any mortal sin. A believer in Christ, following his example, is thus able to transform his own death into an act of obedience and love for the Father. 'This saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him' (2 Timothy 2:11)."
The Catechism adds (207): "Eternal life is that life which begins immediately after death. It will have no end. It will be preceded for each person by a particular judgement at the hands of Christ who is the judge of the living and the dead. This particular judgement will be confirmed in the final judgement."
Our faith as Christians tells us that life without God is meaningless. We were created by God for God: our destiny is to be with Him forever. Without God there can be no personal fulfilment, no lasting peace, no real happiness. In fact all other goals, attractive as they may be to the senses and intellect, will pass away.
Death is the last free choice in our journey to God, a journey during which, in faith, the living Lord Jesus is constantly at our side if we call upon Him. When we are about to die we will be the kind of persons we have been in life.
The way we have lived our commitment as Christians made in Baptism, and confirmed later in life, describes in general the way we shall die. Specifically, the way we have participated in Sunday Mass, received the Eucharist, tried to remain faithful to our state of life, in marriage, vows or ministry, tried to share our faith and seen Christ in others is the same way we shall die.
The Catechism tells us (208): "It is the judgment of immediate retribution which each one after death will receive from God in his immortal soul in accord with his faith and his works. This retribution consists in entrance into the happiness of heaven, immediately or after an appropriate purification, or entry into the eternal damnation of hell".
The Kingdom of God is already within each one of us giving us life here on earth which continues after death. This life is based in God's love which unites us with each other.
Thus the members of the living Church have a special responsibility towards the dead. In our pilgrimage of life we have mutually helped or hindered each other in our growing towards the fullness of love in God. This responsibility continues after death until we are all part of the new generation of the children of God.
Communion of Saints
Here we are reminded of what the Church calls the Communion of the Saints. The Catechism Compendium (195) defines this as "the communion between holy persons (sancti); that is, between those who by grace are united to the dead and risen in Christ."
It continues: "Some are pilgrims on the earth; others, having passed from this life, are undergoing purification and are helped also by our prayers. Others already enjoy the glory of God and intercede for us. All of these together form in Christ one family, the Church, to the praise and the glory of the Trinity."
In the Communion of the Saints we can pray for the dead, for we are all one body. We can then leave God to take that prayer and use it as He will. If we learn to see God as love, as desiring our happiness, as abounding in mercy, as carrying our sins and washing away our guilt, we might wonder if we should not somehow rethink our concept of purgatory, for "Love is not changed by death, and nothing is lost."
Fr Dennis Byrnes is the priest in residence at Port Macquarie in the Lismore Diocese, NSW.