Prepare to be great

Homily of the month

Nothing God-given is lost

Like most folks, Catholics are ambivalent about death, writes Father Larry Janowski, O.F.M. in our featured homily for All the Faithful Departed. But Catholics also see, with the eyes of faith, what is beyond death: the promise of Christ that he would lose none of those who belong to him.

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Occasion: Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day)

Like most folks, Catholics are ambivalent about death. As a friend pointed out: "If Catholics believe that dying means entering heaven and being in Jesus' presence, why are we so afraid of it?" But at some level, most of us are. Even Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who in his last illness astonished Chicago reporters by talking so openly and serenely about his impending death, admitted that there were times when he simply wept at the thought of the coming end of his life.

On the other hand Catholics are probably more comfortable with wakes, funerals, and prayers for the dead than even many other Christian traditions. As an altar server in the 1950s I spent many mornings of my 7th- and 8th-grade years in funeral homes and at funeral Masses so that at least the idea of death began to lose its sting. Of course then there was also that grey afternoon when all eight grades were marched a couple of blocks away to a funeral home to pray the Rosary for a classmate, struck and killed by a truck.

The mother of American poetry, Emily Dickinson, also had a similar familiar ease with death, perhaps because from her upstairs bedroom where she wrote a thousand poems—many referring to death—she could see frequent cemetery processions as her fellow Amherst, Massachusetts citizens were laid to rest. Eventually death became so commonplace that she could picture him as a companionable suitor: “Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me; / The carriage held but just ourselves / And Immortality. . . .”

A marvelous poem, but Catholics do not settle for resignation to a reality Dickinson seems at ease with; rather we see death for what it is while also seeing, with the eyes of faith, what is beyond it: the promise of Christ that he would lose none of those who belong to him.

Death is and always will be loss. It will always breathe a certain chill, but ultimately it must yield before the face of faith, of hope, and of a love so great and true that in one place and time someone loved us so much that he laid down his life in place of our own.

Death is and always will be loss. It will always breathe a certain chill, but ultimately it must yield before the face of faith, of hope, and of a love so great and true that in one place and time someone loved us so much that he laid down his life in place of our own.

Like the New Testament writers we hear today–and doubtless largely because of their testimony–we believe in life beyond death. Those writers based their faith not only on the ancient Hebrew concept of a shadowy abode of the dead, nor on the Greek philosophical idea of the immortality of the soul, nor even on the burgeoning belief of some Jews of Jesus' day in a general resurrection of the dead. Rather, they—and we—build our hope for eternal life first and foremost on the resurrection of Jesus Christ as “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18).

We may or may not yet be so filled with faith as to call it, as Saint Francis of Assisi did, "Sister Death," but at least we can spend this sober day not only praying for our dead but remembering them by putting them together again in the faith about which Jesus said, “This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day” (John 6:39), “and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:3).

Finally, in remembering the holy souls, our own beloved dead, we may call upon another Christian believer who in a poem personifies death only so that he might ridicule its presumption of power. “O Death, be not proud!” John Donne begins his holy sonnet, and in a stroke of Easter exultation concludes, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”