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Celebrating saints & praying for the dead
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During a weekend dominated by baseball, Halloween, and the news of a world gone astray, Catholics are celebrating two major feasts: All Saints and All Souls, November 1st and 2nd.   Simply put, All Saints’ Day honors all those who lived out fully a total, unreserved commitment of faith to Jesus Christ.   All Souls’ Day offers prayers for all those who died in faith, but whose hearts and lives may not have been fully dedicated.  We cannot know for certain who falls into which category.   God does know, but until our heart’s final beat, he leaves us free to choose our ultimate destiny.

God gives each of us the gift of liberty.  Love cannot be forced; holiness cannot be legislated. These are the privilege of innocent children and of mature men and women.  Sadly, very few people dedicate their lives so fully to God that they radiate with the pure light of holiness.  While all those who believe in Jesus Christ inherit the promise of salvation, not all enter that blessing.  As Jesus himself said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)  He also warned us to “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Mt 7:13-14)

Yet all those who build their lives on the foundation of faith in Jesus Christ are guaranteed the inheritance of heaven.  Even if they build poorly, they will be saved, though only through purification.  St. Paul explained this to the Corinthians with reference to construction: “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.  But each one should be careful how he builds.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.  It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.  If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”   (1 Cor. 1:10-17)

Those people who “build” their lives with faith, witness, and Christian integrity are those who build with gold and precious stones.  The Catholic Church calls these “saints”.  In the time of testing, their work stands, and they receive a reward of an everlasting habitation radiant with God’s glory.

Those who have been saved by faith, but still need sanctification at the time of their death, must go through a process of purification before they can enter the presence of God.  For God is a consuming fire of love that causes the holy soul to become incandescent, but causes the impure to burn.

Even those who reject the doctrine of Purgatory have to admit that very few people who die have lived in perfect harmony with God.   But if they die with imperfect love for God and habits of sin, how are they prepared for the blinding light of heaven?  Some say that the Blood of Jesus covers all, so that our cooperation with grace or the lack thereof makes no real difference.   Our efforts, they say, mean nothing in regards to being saved.

Yes, the Bible says that we are saved by the Grace of God at work in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.   But the Bible does not say that what we do - or fail to do - makes no difference in our salvation.  Read, for example, Matthew 25:31-46.   Many other passages are similar.

St. Paul makes this abundantly clear when he writes in Philippians 2:12-13:

“…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

In other words, there is no conflict between God’s grace and our personal effort.  When it comes to salvation, God is always at work, and we are too.

This working-together must lead to a personal transformation.  St. Paul says that, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (1 Corinthians 5:17)

If you read Paul’s letter to the Galatians or the Book of Revelation, you’ll see what being a new creation means.  Countless passages in the Scriptures leave no doubt that God expects the fruits of righteousness in those who’re hoping to enter paradise.  Since hardly anyone achieves this perfection in Christ, almost no one would enter eternal rest if God’s grace didn’t bring about the transformation (not just “covering over” or legalistic “not guilty” sentences for the justified) necessary.  This process takes place after death, as well as during the lives of those who open themselves to full conversion.

So we Catholics pray for those who have died.  Of course, whether or not they will enter eternal life with Christ depends on the choice they freely made while still alive on earth.   If a person chooses not to be saved, and dies with the determination not to receive God’s love in Christ, then all the prayers in the world will not be able to reverse their choice.   Only God has the power, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, to save one who rejects him.

But a person who is destined for heaven must go through a process of preparation.  What this looks like, and how long it lasts, or whether it takes place in time as we know it, is beyond all of us.  Catholics pray for those who have died because we believe that we are still in relationship to them, and that just as our prayers made a difference for them during their lives, so our prayers can assist them in their preparation for heaven after death.

As for those who already enjoy the blessings of union with God, we pray to them in the sense of seeking their intercession, just as we who love one another pray for each other while here on earth.  The closer one is to God, the more anointed and powerful becomes their prayer.  As St. James wrote:  “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”  (James 5:16)

So please don’t be afraid of praying for those loved ones who have died, and for those who have no one to pray for them.  Why should we forget the people we loved so much while they were with us, just because they have died?  But if we remember them, aren’t we remembering them as alive?

And as for those who lived lives of total love and commitment to God and to others, did not Jesus promise that they, too, would never die?  “Jesus said… ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’” (John 11:25-26).   But then he asks us this question: “Do you believe this?”

In fact, while it’s a great scandal that so many Catholics seem to worship their statues and images (in fact, many don’t; they are just showing respect for the person who is represented), it’s a far greater tragedy that millions of Christians never seek the intercession of the saints.  To me, even before I became Catholic in 1981, this rejection of God’s army in heaven is beyond comprehension.  Let me repeat myself: I cannot believe, and will never understand, how a person who loves Jesus Christ would not take him for his word, accepting his teaching that those who die in faith don’t die at all.

Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah in their glory as they helped to prepare him for his Passover (Luke 19:31).  The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a “great cloud of witnesses” (12: 1, 2), referring to them as present, not past.

Numerous other New Testament references (see esp. Revelation 1:5, 7:14) ought to dismiss our fears of idolatry when we call on the saints for help.

The greatest saint of all is Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, whom from the earliest times the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have called “Mother of God.”  If God Incarnate could take his humanity from her alone, then who are we to fear asking for her prayers, calling her “mother”, too?   The time has come for all Christians to stop limiting the generosity of our God.