Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In past years, I have written about the Catholic Church’s special focus on praying for the faithful departed in the month of November. As the month of November progresses and the sign of winter’s arrival intensify, we have a form of death presented clearly before our eyes. Lest the observation of death be only an external fact, the Church gives us this month as a way of understanding death and the natural end we will all face, in a spiritual key. At the risk of repeating themes, I have already treated in past years, I would like to turn our attention again to the great spiritual work of mercy that is praying for the dead, as well as to the very important theme of the four last things.
St. Paul tells us in the first letter to the Thessalonians read at Mass today, that we should be aware of what will happen at the end when we die. The note that Paul sounds is one of great hope in the resurrection of the dead. Even as we confront the sadness of death, a grief that can leave us feeling bereft of hope, we are reminded that God will have the great and final victory. Death will have no power. Rather, the dead who have gone to their rest professing faith in Jesus Christ will be raised incorruptible. At the end of the world, St. Paul says, we will be united with God in heaven forever. “Console one another with these words,” he exhorts us. Even as we confront the reality of death, we ought to do so with the confident knowledge that Jesus has triumphed over sin and death and has promised us new life.
As we listen to these words from St. Paul, we might be reminded of two of the spiritual works of mercy, namely praying for the dead, and comforting the sorrowful. The first response of the Christian when facing the fact of death is to pray for the deceased person. “Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them,” goes the familiar prayer. In our remembrance of all the faithful departed on All Souls’ Day, we began the month with prayer for our beloved deceased. When we pray for the dead, we do the only thing we are able to do: while they are alive, we can care for people, tend to them in their illness, and provide for their material needs. But when death comes, we who are living can only pray for the peaceful repose of the souls of the dead, the merciful salvation which is offered by Jesus. Our prayer for the dead often comes in the context of a funeral or wake. These moments are opportunities to comfort the sorrowful, to be an instrument of the compassionate love of Christ in the lives of people who are suffering. Simply showing up is enough. Of course, the spiritual work of mercy can also involve other things, including those messages of encouragement and sympathy, having a Mass said, making a visit to the home to sit with someone in their grief, or a follow-up in the weeks following a funeral. All of us can do this, and all of us can use this special reminder offered to us in this month of November.
The Gospel today turns our attention to the end. The classic category of the four last things (death, judgement, heaven, and hell) is what ought to come to mind as we listen to our Lord’s parable. As we see signs of death around us, we must also learn what it is to prepare ourselves for the end. The wise virgins came prepared with the necessary supply of oil. Having prepared well, they were also welcome into the great feast. Jesus wants us to be wise, wants us to be prepared, wants us to be welcomed into the eternal wedding banquet. There will be a death we suffer (“Lord, Lord, open the door for us!”), and a judgement we face (“I do not know you”). Heaven or hell awaits us. If we, like the wise virgins, are prepared with our oil, ready to meet the bridegroom when He comes, we will be welcomed into the eternal Heaven that awaits us. May this month of November serve as a reminder to each of us to stay awake, ready to meet the Lord, ready not for death, but for everlasting life.