The Poor Souls

Homily given by Fr Francisco Nahoe, OFM Conv on November 16, 2019 at Holy Cross Cemetery, Colma, CA.

YOU AND I ARE HERE TODAY because we hope in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We also believe this central and immutable doctrine of the Catholic faith not simply because we have recited it many times in the Creed at Mass or in our personal prayer, but first and foremost because supernatural grace has infused this hope into our hearts. Let me pause for moment here. You believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come because Almighty God has placed that hope into your heart. For, whatever my natural capacity for reason and faith may be, baptism and the Holy Spirit confer upon me something infinitely greater, namely, the knowledge that the Lord Jesus Himself has of the His Father’s love and mercy, a knowledge which is embodied in the teachings of the Catholic Church and now infused by grace into the hearts of believers.

For any of us to contradict the resurrection of the dead at this stage of our Christian discipleship would not be simply to say, well, I don’t agree with what the Church teaches on this matter, as if it were merely a question of institutional identity or personal preference. No, to repudiate this doctrine represents a lethal crisis of faith. For believers cannot deny the hope that God has placed in their hearts without tearing themselves to bits. Wounded hope, as we know, festers into despair.

Now despair creeps its way into the lives of the baptized because the world beats them down. The only preventive measures one can take seek to nurture the faith that the Spirit gives through divine worship, a life of prayer, and the works of mercy. Above all other things, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass places the divine realities that renew our faith daily before us.

We, therefore, affirm the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church as knowledge occasion for great happiness. This is so firstly, because we all desire to know the truth and the satisfaction of that desire is its own compensation. But it is also because we rejoice to know more about the One who loves us, about His plan for our good despite the shocking certainty of death, judgment, heaven or hell. Hope in the resurrection of the dead has been poured into our hearts by the Father through the agency of the Son sending Their Holy Spirit upon us. This indwelling of the Holy Trinity makes us eager to know what the Church teaches so that our faith may be whole and our joy complete.

It is a certainty that the dead will be raised. In the Old Testament, many centuries before our Lord taught His apostles the definitive doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, we hear that, after the battle against Gorgias, the Seleucid governor of Idumea, Israel’s champion, Judas Maccabeus took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection [of the dead] in mind. For if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin [2 Mac 12:43-46].

The canonical Books of the Maccabees underscore an emerging Old Testament faith in the resurrection of the dead precisely in the face of terrible persecution from Greeks attempting to replace the Law of Moses with the worldly values of the Hellenistic Age. Indeed, gradual germination of belief in the resurrection of the dead reveals the inner logic and vigor of the covenant at Sinai, which will bloom forth at last in the saving Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord Jesus.

The persecution of the Greeks at the time of Maccabees was phenomenally, even dramatically, violent, as in the case of the martyrs in 2 Maccabees 7. The world in my lifetime, however, has seen just such violence visited upon believers, as in the terrible persecution of Vietnamese Catholics in the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon or the ongoing persecution of Christians in China. Today, however, the strident secularism of our age does not so much assault our faith in the resurrection of the dead as swindle it away with the promise of a more immediate happiness that evaporates as soon as you have paid the awful price it demands.

Against the fraud of modern atheism and its cult of death, the New Testament shows us Christ rising from the tomb as the fullest self-revelation of the living God. This is the insight of Pope Saint John II, who goes on to say that

[The Resurrection of Christ] is the last and fullest confirmation of the truth about God which is expressed right from the beginning through revelation. Furthermore, the resurrection is the reply of the God of life to the historical inevitability of death, to which man was subjected from the moment of breaking the first covenant and which, together with sin, entered his history. This answer about the victory won over death is illustrated by the First Letter to the Corinthians with extraordinary perspicacity. It presents the resurrection of Christ as the beginning of that eschatological fulfillment, in which, through Him and in Him, everything will return to the Father, everything will be subjected to Him, that is, handed back definitively, that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15:28). And then—in this definitive victory over sin, over what opposed the creature to the Creator—death also will be vanquished: The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:26).

Every single time a priest celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we remember the dead in view of their eventual resurrection and the ultimate victory of Christ of the last enemy. Mass is the moment par excellence in this life, when we join ourselves to the self-offering of the Lord Jesus to His Father. In doing so, we express our hope that God will raise us up on the Last Day and show us His mercy.

We may think of the Doctrine of Purgatory as the soft marrow that we find encased, as it were, in the hard bone of Scripture. Indeed, affirming that His Father is the God of the living and not of the dead, the Lord Jesus speaks explicitly of forgiveness in the age to come [Matthew 12:31]. Pope Saint Gregory the Great, one of the four great Latin Fathers of the Church, explains this Gospel verse:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

Centuries later, commenting on Second Maccabees, Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that there is no need to pray for the dead who are in heaven, for they are in no need; nor again for those who are in hell, because they cannot be loosed from sins. Therefore after this life, there are some not yet loosed from sins, who can be loosed therefrom; and the like have charity, without which sins cannot be loosed, for charity covers    all sins [Proverbs 10:12]. Hence they will not be consigned to everlasting death, since he that lives and believes in Me, shall not die  for  ever  [John  11:26]:  nor  will  they  obtain glory without being cleansed, because nothing unclean shall obtain it, as stated in the last chapter of the Book of Revelation. Therefore some kind of cleansing remains after this life. Further, Gregory of Nyssa says: If one who loves and believes in Christ, has failed to wash away his sins in this life, he is set free after death by the fire of Purgatory. Therefore there remains some kind of cleansing after this life.

Unlike Heaven and Hell, however, Purgatory is not an eternal state, but lasts only until the resurrection on the Last Day. In the formula to which I have already alluded — that is, the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven or Hell — we would therefore understand Purgatory as beginning with Death in view of Judgment. The dead being purified in Purgatory have already been justified by the saving Blood of the Lamb [cf Revelation 12:11] and they have cooperated with the grace of their salvation, but there yet remains a proclivity to sin — a fomes peccati or tinder of sin — which tradition calls concupiscence,6 and which must be cleansed so that the soul may ascend to the fullness of eternal life. Those who are justified and baptized, by cooperating with the grace that makes them holy, that is, by struggling virtuously against concupiscent desire, may be confirmed in the holiness of the saints in this life. Indeed, everyone one of us is called to holiness and, in this life, afforded all the graces needed to lay claim to that holiness and to live in it. But you know as well as I that we are still prone to sin. And we do sin, not by necessity, but from weakness and through pride. And every time we sin, we incur temporal punishment for our sins. If I steal a hundred dollars from you, but genuinely contrite, then go to confession, I may yet be absolved of my sin, but I still have to give you back the hundred bucks and I have to deal with the repercussions of having swiped it. If I do not, then I will have incurred a debt that I have not discharged and acquired a consequence that I have not faced. And if I die in such a state, even though I am saved from damnation, does our Lord not say, “you will not be released until you have paid the last penny” [Matthew 5:26].

Have you every considered just how someone imprisoned for debt scrambles to repay what he owes? At that point, he has no choice but to rely entirely on the good will of others. He desperately needs, but cannot compel, the charity of those who, aware of his helplessness and moved with pity for the condition in which he finds himself, will, of their own accord, offer him assistence by paying his debts and facing his consequences for him. This, my brothers and sisters, is what we understand the condition of the soul in Purgatory to be. That soul is poor because it cannot help itself to discharge it debts. Any one so detained may acknowledge the justice of his detainment, and consent to the judgment that places him where he is. He may even desire the purification that comes with such corrective force, but he can do nothing to repay his debts on his own. For that, he needs the assistance of others.

By participating in this celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, you accept the role of the one who, moved with pity, comes to the assistance of those who can no longer assist themselves. In this respect, we may compare you to the Good Samaritan who sees the condition of the Pilgrim beaten by a Band of Robbers. We know the names of these brigands, for they are infamous: Concupiscence, Pride and Temptation. Neither the Priest nor the Levite passing by can help, for the time of the Pilgrim’s merit in works of the law is over. Your prayers and suffrages for the Poor Souls, in effect, bind the victim’s wounds and place the suffering Pilgrim upon your own beast of burden. The fact that you are here now brings the suffering Pilgrim to the Inn, which is the Church. Thus do you consign him to the Innkeeper with the promise to support the Inn in its ongoing care for now recovering Pilgrim.

You and I have good reason to practice this particular form of charity. Firstly, such acts of charity toward the dead build us up in faith and teach us all the more to hope for the resurrection of the dead. Secondly, if we would have future generations of Catholics pray for us when we die, should we not encourage them to pray for dead by our pious example? Finally, the Lord Jesus, in His holy Incarnation, revealed Himself as the consummate Good Samaritan decisively intervening to save the victim of robbers that works of the law could not save.

Saint Francis de Sales contends that this kind of charity to the Poor Souls fulfills all the requirements of both the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy. Let us therefore be merciful to the Poor Souls after the pattern of the Son of God, who has shown us His mercy.

One thought on “The Poor Souls

  1. Typically outstanding Father Nahoe homily. Great overview of the Scriptural foundation behind the Church’s teaching on purgatory and why we pray for the dead.

    I love the names given to the brigands who beat the man aided by the Good Samaritan: Concupiscence, Pride, and Temptation.

    In addition to what is mentioned in this homily, I also see this passage as a proof Wisdom 3 : 1 The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace. For if to others, indeed, they seem punished, yet is their hope full of immortality; Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings* he took them to himself. 7In the time of their judgment they shall shine and dart about as sparks through stubble; They shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the LORD shall be their King forever.”

    For gold to be tried and proven is for it to be purged with fire to burn off the impurities.

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