Saturday, November 30, 2019

Eagerly Waiting

Everyone knows that waiting is just a part of life, but none of us like having to do it. We hate to wait, whether it’s in traffic, in the checkout line, or waiting for Father to finish his homily so we can continue with Mass and get on with the rest of our day. We especially don’t like to wait on someone else – someone who is running late, taking their time, forcing us to wait.

It seems though that Jesus is just such a person. The season of Advent is all about waiting for the arrival of Christ, and preparing accordingly. We are certainly waiting for Christmas, and we know the kinds of preparations that we will make in these coming weeks to celebrate that coming. Advent also provides us the chance to prepare for a new coming of Christ in our own hearts. In these weeks, we should look to our own lives to see how we can seek a renewed faith in order to encounter the Lord in a renewed way.

But on this first Sunday of Advent, our readings don’t speak at all about Christmas or the Christ Child. Rather, they focus our attention on the most important sense that we await the coming of Christ, the way that Christians have been awaiting him since he ascended to heaven – the Lord’s return to earth in glory and power at the end of time. The idea of the Second Coming may seem like a distant thought, a far off idea; after all, it’s been two thousand years. But as Saint Paul writes to the Romans, the Lord’s return should be something we await eagerly and expectantly, whether it comes tomorrow or another two thousand years from now. We await the Lord’s return like the coming of morning after a long night, a dawn so brilliant that all things will be illuminated by it.

"Noah sent out a dove and it returned with an olive branch", Mosaic, Monreale Cathedral, Palermo, Sicily

In the Gospel today, Jesus warns his followers not to be like the people of Noah’s era – those who ignored prophecies of the coming flood because it sounded unrealistic, or because they were too caught up in their present concerns. Jesus says that in just the same way, many will be unprepared for his Second Coming, perhaps even many who claim to be his disciples. Because we can’t know the day when the Lord will return, there is an ever-present risk of becoming too caught up in the day to day concerns of the world, so much so that we fail to prepare for the dawning of the Lord’s return.

The season of Advent affords us a wonderful chance to reset – to focus again on what we are hoping for and to make sure we are not caught off guard by the Lord’s coming. We can use these weeks not just as a preparation for Christmas but as a chance for spiritual renewal, an opportunity to really deepen our relationship with the Lord. One easy way to do that is to read and pray with the readings for Mass for each day, whether you try to make it to daily Mass or not. You might have seen that we have several copies of “The Word Among Us” available each month at the table in the back of church which has the readings for each day. Encountering the word of God and reflecting upon it is a wonderful way to prepare the way of the Lord in our own hearts.

This season is also a wonderful chance to practice charity. Many people make monetary contributions to organizations they support this time of year, and certainly for us as Christians this should be seen as part of our spiritual responsibility to support the Church – our parish first and foremost, but also the diocese, worthy organizations, and even families and persons who may need our help. But we can also practice charity in ways that don’t involve money at all. We can visit those who are homebound, or take a meal to someone who is recovering from an illness. We can make a phone call or write a letter to someone whom we know would love to hear from us. We can make an extra effort to detach from social media, or to watch less TV, or perhaps disconnect from technology altogether in order to spend more time in contemplative prayer or spiritual reading. Not only will your Christmas be better for it, you’ll be closer to Christ and more ready for his final coming.

Friends, we await the return of the Lord eagerly and expectantly, like the daybreak after the night. Whenever it may come in time, Jesus's return at the end of time is something that we can prepare for now, making ready for it with firmness of purpose. In this Advent season, let’s strive to arouse ourselves from spiritual slumber for the dawn is coming sooner than we might believe. May Jesus, the Light of the world, find us ready to welcome his coming and to rejoice at the salvation which he brings.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Loyal Subjects of the King

When I was a kid, I loved board games. One of my favorites was RISK. Did you ever play that? The object of the game was pretty simple – world domination. You started by placing your armies in a particular corner of the world – North America, Europe, Australia, etc. – and then through careful deployment of resources and skillful execution, you tried to defeat your opponents and conquer the world.

In real life though, it’s not nearly as nice of an idea. History unfortunately has known no shortage of those who have tried to conquer the world. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and many more who aimed to subjugate the world to his power through the sheer force of will. And while each of them fell short of his ultimate goal, they wreaked devastation and death upon untold numbers in their quest for power. The very concept of a ruler for all people should rightly appall us.

And yet, on this last Sunday of the Church’s year, that idea is something we are here to celebrate – that there is someone who is ruler of all: Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It’s sort of a strange idea to our modern, American mentality – that all power is given to one, one to whom all glory and honor is due. And yet, as Christians, we proclaim precisely that – that Christ is the Lord of all things, of all peoples, of all times.

What does it mean for us practically to say that Jesus is king? First and foremost, Jesus is not a King in the ways that we are used to thinking about power. We see that clearly in the Gospel today. Hanging upon a cross, crucified as a criminal – Jesus's authority is far from tyrannical. Instead, he shows his power by subjugating our greatest enemy – the sin that divides us from God. In the Preface for today's Eucharistic Prayer, the text of the Mass says that Jesus conquered that sin by means of his Cross and brought all created things under his rule.

Second, if Jesus is the King of all things – heaven and earth, life and death – then he has the right to rule all things within us as well. Just as we look ahead to the day when all creation will be under his authority, so too we must also see within our own lives what we might be holding back from his grasp, and how we might bring those things back under his authority. We do this especially in the sacraments: at the Sunday Mass, when we gather humbly to worship the King; at the sacrament of reconciliation, when we allow him to remove whatever keeps us from being devoted to him. We don’t lose anything by letting Jesus be Lord of our lives. Rather, the more we devote ourselves to him – the more we let go of earthly ideas and persons and causes and devout ourselves instead to Christ the King – then the more we become worthy even now of his heavenly kingdom.

Titian, Christ and the Good Thief (c. 1566)

Lastly, the kingship of Jesus is one that we also must proclaim. We proclaim it especially by virtue of our own forgiveness. This King that we worship possessed nothing in the final moments of his earthly life – no crown apart from his thorns, no throne apart from the Cross – and yet he was still infinitely rich in one thing: his mercy. Notice how easily Jesus forgives the good thief on the cross. It takes only the smallest recognition of the latter’s sin for Jesus to freely share eternal life with him. Imagine how that man’s despair changed to overwhelming joy with just the few words, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” While we can’t as easily share the promise of heaven with others, we can readily share the healing power of mercy by our own words and actions. When we are merciful, we are in that moment like Jesus on the Cross, releasing someone else from the burden and debt of sin, sharing with them the joy of being forgiven. When we forgive, we demonstrate to someone else that their offense or grievance or wrong done toward us pales in comparison to the King who rules our heart. If Christ who is King of the Universe offers mercy so freely to sinners, what excuse could we possibly have to not do the same?

Friends, unlike the rulers of this world, Jesus’s reign is not one of destruction and domination but rather of justice, love, and peace. We serve him well when we work for the building of that kingdom on this earth – through works of mercy and service to our neighbor – even as we eagerly await the eternal kingdom of the life to come. Let us choose again today, in a purposeful way, to answer the call of our king, to respond to the grace he gives to us by choosing to be again his loyal subjects. With Jesus as our king, now and in the life to come, then he will surely remember us and bring us to reign with him in Paradise.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

World Upended

It is a feeling we all have experienced at one time or another. The phone rings, and a loved one calls with heavy news. A routine doctor visit turns into an unexpected and alarming diagnosis. A letter arrives in the mail that makes the future seem less certain. We all know that feeling of something coming out of the blue that upends our world, that puts into question something which had seemed solid and secure.

For the last several weeks, our Gospel passages have followed Jesus as he has made his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. This sequence is more than a physical journey; it’s intended also to be a spiritual one. Jesus, the Son of God, is making his way to the city of God, Jerusalem, and there he will fulfill the purpose for which he came into the world: to redeem humanity by his suffering, death, and resurrection. All of Luke’s Gospel has been building toward this point – to the moment of the Lord’s arrival into the city where God will at last deal with sin and death.

In today’s Gospel, we have finally arrived at the journey’s destination. Jesus is speaking to his disciples from inside Jerusalem, in fact from within the Temple, the most important place on earth for a Jewish person. It was literally the dwelling place of God and a symbol of the covenant he had with his chosen people Israel. And yet, as we hear, Jesus predicts its downfall. In each of the four Gospels, Jesus explicitly prophesies that the Temple, this center of Jewish life and religion, will be destroyed. It’s hard to overstate how devastating and disorienting a prediction that was. For a faithful Jew, the Temple was the spiritual, cultural, and political center of the world. For it to be destroyed, for it to be wiped from the face of the earth, was to put into question everything that had seemed solid and secure.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem" by James Tissot (c. 1890)

Of course, the disciples, very understandably, want to know more about more about the specifics of his prediction of the Temple’s destruction. When is it going to happen? How should they know to be ready for it? We sometimes ask similar questions of God – not about the Temple’s destruction but about how we are to navigate the natural course of our lives now, the ups and downs that can come unexpectedly, the surprises that occur which can so often be disorienting and devastating. How do we find stability in an ever-changing world?

Jesus gives us two recommendations in the Gospel. He doesn’t answer the disciples’ question about timing directly, because timing is something outside of our control. Instead, he speaks about what we can control. First, he warns us not to be deceived. When our world is upended in some way, it’s tempting to search for easy answers. Jesus instead encourages us to be shrewd and not to put our trust in those who seek to lead us astray. This might be quite literally persons: false prophets and fake messiahs, those who promise us religious salvation, political security, some special knowledge that is attractive when we are struggling. As Jesus says, “Do not follow them!” More broadly, it means also resisting the temptation to panic and then seek comfort in ways that only further disorient and discourage us. What we need instead is to turn to the Lord, to trust in him more fully, and to believe in what he has promised. 

The second recommendation Jesus gives begins from that point: do not be terrified. It is certain that we will encounter trial and suffering, especially if we are trying to live faithfully Jesus’s teachings. Our world is out of sync with God’s plan, and so there’s always going to be a fundamental disconnect between the world and us until the end of time. If the Lord himself came into the world to do battle with the forces of darkness and to eventually suffer and die, then we should not expect that as his followers we are going to avoid sharing in that same fundamental struggle. But despite our suffering, Jesus tells us not to fear. Why? Because he is somehow with us, within us, strengthening us, empowering us when we need his presence most. After the struggle is the victory; after suffering is the Resurrection. When we place ourselves in the Lord’s hands, and allow him to direct us where he will, then while we might suffer we can never truly be afraid, for we know that he is stronger than all else. We must continue on our paths confidently, faithfully, believing that the Lord who controls all sees our perseverance and will secure us in his love.

Friends, we are just a few weeks away from the season of Advent and the start of a new liturgical year. The Church invites us in these weeks to consider the course of history, broadly and specifically as it applies to our own lives. Sometimes it takes difficult news, or an unexpected diagnosis, or an uncertain future to remind us that in the end we are not made to be at home in this life. In this ever-changing world, even those things that seem safe and secure will inevitably be upended and overturned – if not now, then in some time to come. The only true and lasting stability to be found is in the One who is greater than those things, in the One who is all-powerful and everlasting. In what way is the Lord inviting you today to not be deceived, to not be terrified, but to trust in him more deeply and so navigate this world toward the life to come? 

As we prepare for this Eucharist, may our communion with the Lord in this Sacrament of the Altar always be our true and lasting foundation.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Heaven Is For the Body

Do you remember the movie “Heaven is for Real”? It came out about five years ago and was based upon a book by the same title. I never saw the movie or read the book, but I remember how they made some headlines when they debuted, especially in Christian circles. If you’re not familiar with the story you might be able to guess what it is about. A young boy becomes deathly ill. When he eventually recovers, he tells his family that during his illness he had an out of body experience and went to heaven where he met Jesus. His family is skeptical of his story until he shares details that he would have no way of knowing, such as about long deceased family members, and even about a sibling who his mother had miscarried years before. Eventually the family and others come to believe his story, and it strengthens their faith and brings them closer together.

These kinds of stories are not unfamiliar to us. Whatever we may believe about a particular one, it is interesting how powerful they can be. I’ve met people who have really had their faith reinforced by such stories, or who found a reason to hope and persevere in difficult and challenging situations because of them. I used to be surprised at this. I thought, “Isn’t heaven what we all hope for as Christians? Is it a surprise to find out heaven exists?” I came to realize though that it’s one thing to believe in heaven, but it’s something else entirely to have that belief become real, as something actually attainable.

We hear about just that kind of belief-made-real in today’s readings. In the first reading from the story of the Maccabees, seven brothers are able to endure torture and ultimately even death rather violate their religious faith because they have a firm hope in being justified by God in paradise. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks plainly to the Sadducees about the reality of the life to come – how it is different and far greater than what we experience here on earth. In both readings, what is notable is that this heavenly life is not a distant hope, a vague dream – it is a reality very near and present, and thus one worth sacrificing much to achieve.

Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees (1863) by Antonio Ciseri

Notice though that in both readings what is being hoped for is something very different from how we often think of heaven. We typically envision heaven as a spiritual reality – disembodied souls, floating clouds, maybe some angels strumming harps. But that’s the Hollywood picture of heaven not the Christian one. If you look at the readings today, what is being hoped for is not heaven in that spiritual sense; in fact, the word "heaven" is used only one time. What is being hoped for instead is resurrection – the hope that the mortal body which passes aways will one day be raised up again.

Each Sunday, when we profess our faith in the Creed, we say: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Why do we say this? Because contrary to how some think today, our bodies matter. We are not just souls in material shells – we are human persons, composites of body and soul, as much corporeal as we are spiritual. When we die, our bodies pass away, and we pray that our souls will go to heaven. But for God to give us true redemption – for him to truly be, as Jesus says in the Gospel, “not God of the dead but of the living” – then that means that he will not only save our spirits, but will resurrect and transform our bodies as well. We believe that this will happen at the end of time, after the Lord comes again and delivers the Final Judgment, when all of the dead will be raised and will enter heaven (or hell) as body and soul once again.

Michelangelo, The Last Judgment [detail] (1541)

This may seem like an abstract theological point, but it actually has profound importance for how we live. If our bodies will be raised up – if our bodies are made for glory, to be in some way like the Resurrected Body of Christ, which sits at the Father’s right hand – then that must inform how we live now. And how we live now is always in and through our bodies. Christians, especially Catholics, often get criticism for being too focused on bodies and what we humans do with them. But the reality is our bodies are important – they have been given to us by God as the means by which we operate in the world, and they have been created not merely for this life but also for the glory of heaven.

There is nothing that we do that does not involve our bodies in some way, and if we are aiming for the glorified, eternal life of heaven, then how we use our bodies now matters. As you know, our faith teaches that there are all kinds of ways we can treat our bodies, or the bodies of others, that lead us away from eternal life. I know our minds gravitate to “sins of the flesh,” as we call them, so let’s name some of them: masturbation; pornography; sex before marriage; homosexual actions. We could also include other things related to what we believe about life and sexuality: cohabitation, artificial contraception, sterilization, and a number of other things. Because sex is intended by God as the physical expression of the spiritual bond we call marriage – a lifelong bond, called to be faithful and fruitful – then there are all kinds of things we can do with our bodies, some even that are very accepted by society at large, that are not in accord with God’s law.

There are other things, besides those related to the sixth commandment, which we can do with our bodies that are also bad for us, things like: violence and abuse, whether self-inflicted or, God forbid, inflicted on another; gluttony; drunkenness, intentional or otherwise; use of illicit drugs; vanity about our appearance or even our health; or alternatively, neglect for our proper health and well-being. We also know how there is a growing acceptance in our society of people who want to change their bodies or even the bodies of their children, sometimes to another gender, or to no gender, or even to make it appear non-human in some way. We have even seen the growing trend of not respecting the body at the end of life, often through the misguided notion of relieving oneself or another of the suffering that comes with illness and age. While some of these are complex things, and we don’t want to stigmatize any single person, especially if they suffer from some illness or addiction, we must say that these things are not good for us. They are not the way to treat our bodies in the manner that they have been created by God and made by him for resurrected life. 

What we need is to recover a healthy respect for our bodies and the moral significance they have, and believe that it matters how we use them. If we are not in actively awaiting and yearning for heaven, then we may become like the Sadducees: we can implicitly believe that this world is all there is, and so it is fine to seek pleasure and happiness in all these ways and more, in all sorts of things that do not align with how God has created us to be. Instead, we need to be more like the seven brothers in the first reading, who knew that what they did with their bodies was important, because their bodies were made for eternal life. It’s for that reason that they were willing in the end to let their bodies be tortured and even killed rather than lose the promise of resurrection. How willing are we to do the same? To live in our bodies well – to deny ourselves, at times, perhaps even to suffer death one day – rather than lose heavenly glory?

Friends, heaven is for real, as Jesus tells us clearly in the Gospel. May we always believe that to be true, not just as a distant hope but as a firm reality which awaits us. But let’s remember also that heaven is for the body. Our bodies – so familiar, so well known to us in their flaws and weaknesses – have been created for glory, for eternal life, if we use them well in this life. May we endure every trial, suffering, or self-denial necessary – in body and in spirit – to ensure that we receive one day what we profess today that we believe: “the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.”

Sunday, November 3, 2019

See and Be Seen

As you may know, I had the privilege of living in Rome for four years when I was studying to be a priest. While it sometimes feels a bit distant now, it was a great experience. One of the greatest benefits and blessings of studying for the priesthood in Rome is that you are very close to the Pope. In fact, our seminary was just a ten minute walk from St. Peter’s Basilica so often we would go over there for the Sunday Angelus, when the pope would say a few words and give a blessing to everyone in the square.

Even better were the Wednesday audiences, when the pope would come out into the middle of the square for a prayer service and assembly that lasted for an hour or more. Because these audiences were always packed with people, it was important to get in line several hours early in order to try and get a good seat. It was always quite a hilarious sight when the Vatican guards finally opened the barricades to let people in — everyone would rush forward, running, scrambling, climbing over each other in order to race ahead to get to the seats that would have the best view of the pope. Seminarians and even priests wouldn’t hesitate to push past someone, but the worst were the nuns and sisters. Believe me, it was hazardous to your health to get in the way of a charging sister as she made her way to her seat!

I am reminded of that chaotic scene whenever I hear today’s Gospel. If people today jostle and scramble to see the pope, imagine what some must have done to see Jesus! In fact, we don’t have to imagine at all because the Gospel passage tells us. We hear the story of Zacchaeus – the short man who climbed a tree in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus. There’s more to this figure of Zacchaeus though than just that. We are told that he is the chief tax collector of Jericho. This means he was wealthy, but it also means he was probably quite wicked. Tax collectors in the ancient world were ruthless and greedy; they were also seen as traitors by their own people, since they conspired with the enemy, the Roman government, to collect taxes. In other words, Zacchaeus isn’t how we often may think of him, a funny little short guy. He was a sinner, a hardened one, and someone detested by others.

But, despite his sins, we are told Zacchaeus was “seeking to see who Jesus was.” The heart of this sinful man is intrigued by Christ – intrigued by his fame, perhaps, but possibly also by his power, by his mercy. But he has a problem – he’s short in stature and he can’t see over the crowd. Zacchaeus though is not about to allow this to thwart what he yearns for, and so he does something bold and astonishing: he climbs a tree. Now, this is not something an important and wealthy person would do – it’s the action of a commoner. To climb the tree would have been humiliating for Zacchaeus, but he does it nonetheless, so ardently does he desire to see Christ. And upon seeing him, he is himself seen by Jesus. Jesus acknowledges him, invites him to come down, and tells him he wants to be his guest that evening. In doing so, Jesus transforms this hardened man's heart; he shows him a love that is personal enough to not only heal him of his sins but to reform his ways. Zacchaeus may have wanted to see Jesus, but we see that in the end it was really Jesus who was seeking Zacchaeus all along.

Niels Larsen Stevns, Zacchaeus (1913)

What we have therefore in the Gospel today is a story of conversion – a story of the encounter between a sinner and the merciful Lord. And so perhaps we might reflect upon our own individual relationships with Jesus in light of this story. Often in our lives, we might be like Zacchaeus, made low by our sins. We may feel a desire for healing and renewal, but our desire is thwarted – perhaps we despair of really being healed, or we are dissuaded by peer pressure or bad advice, or the focus on temporal things, the day to day, presses in on us and obscures the face of Jesus. What we need to do in such a situation is be bold, as Zacchaeus was – not by climbing a tree, but by doing whatever is necessary to encounter Christ. That may mean swallowing our pride and stepping back into the confessional after a long time away. It may mean that we need to step away from some of the urgent concerns of daily life in order to spend time in humble, honest prayer. It may mean humbling ourselves to seek out those whom we have wronged to ask forgiveness. Whatever it requires, I guarantee that the bold humility we show will be met and matched fourfold by the Lord’s tender love. We will find that whatever we put forward to come to encounter him, it is in fact he who has been searching for us all along.

Friends, it is a special thing to strive to see the pope, but it is far more special to behold the face of Christ, who in turn seeks to heal us as he healed Zacchaeus. This week is National Vocations Awareness Week, when our Church prays that those whom the Lord is calling to follow him will answer that call – especially to priestly or religious vocations. We need priests to give us the sacraments, to provide us with the merciful encounter with Christ that Zacchaeus experienced. But we also should remember that it is not just priests and religious who should know what it means to have met the Lord. Every disciple has the vocation, the calling to seek Jesus – to rush forward to meet him, to hasten without stumbling to encounter him, for he is also seeking us, to dwell with us, to make his home within us, so that we might one day make our home with him. How terrible it would be to miss out on that encounter, to be just another face in the crowd, only watching as Jesus passes by.

As we prepare to celebrate this Eucharist, this encounter with the Lord under the sign of bread and wine, may we humble ourselves to overcome every obstacle to see anew the face of Jesus.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The Help of Hope

On All Souls' Day (1839) by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

Thank you for coming to Mass today to pray for the souls of the faithful departed. Praying for the dead is an important part of our Catholic faith and one of the greatest works of mercy we can do in this life.

Yesterday, I spoke a little bit about how we have the duty to pray for our loved ones who have passed from this life, and not to presume that they are necessarily in heaven and even more that we are for sure going there too. Today, I want to say something about another danger in regard to how we think of death. That is, we are plagued by grief at the passing of our loved ones to such degree that we become filled with worry, fear, or even despair rather than focus on the loving mercy of God. The readings today wish to remind us that God is more powerful than death and that even in death the Lord Jesus cares for those who have been entrusted to him.

Grief and sadness at the passing of a loved one is very understandable – very human. Our life is changed by the absence of the person who had been part of it, perhaps a very integral, central part. But in grief, the teachings of our faith give us strength and especially can fill us with hope. Hope is the desire for something from God and the expectation of receiving it. As Christians, we ultimately hope for one thing – union with God, whether for ourselves or for another. We find reason for that hope in the promise of Christ – that those who have been made sharers in his Passion and Death, will also share in his Resurrection.

When we are filled with grief at the passing of a loved one, when we feel helpless at the void their presence was, the Church reminds us of this hope and directs us to pray that it be fulfilled. We don’t pray just in a general or vague sense but with a very specific intention: that God would have mercy on the soul of the loved one. And believing in the promise of Christ, having hope in God’s mercy, we can help that person’s soul. We can assist them to be purified of the sins they committed so that they will be united with God.

Friends, death may not be a pleasant thing to think about, and often we are filled with sadness at the thought of it or the memory of those who have died. But in our grief, let’s not forget our hope, and let’s act upon that hope by our fervent prayers. May the souls we assist in reaching heaven become a help for us one day, so that the love of Christ which conquers all things, even death itself, might bring us to that place of joy, light, and peace.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Four Last Things

Maarten van Heemskerck, The Four Last Things (1565)

Have you ever heard of the Four Last Things? Those of you who read from or studied the Baltimore Catechism long ago might remember the phrase. The Four Last Things are those things that come at the end of our lives: they are Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. No matter the vicissitudes of our life, the ups and downs, whether we have lived well or poorly, we will all encounter the same basic realities at our lives’ end: Death, when our mortal bodies pass away; Judgment, when we will stand before God face to face and understand our life perfectly as he does; and then finally either Heaven, union with God, or Hell, separation from him.

While it might be a bit sobering to think of all of these things, it is clear that the Church wants us to think of them. In a sense, these Four Last Things should always be before our mind’s eye – not to be frightened by them, but to be ready for them because they are what await us. They should be especially at the forefront of our minds each year as we begin the month of November, when our Church gives us two days to help remind us of these Last Things.

On November 1, we gather for Mass to celebrate and ask the intercession of our brothers and sisters in heaven – those saints, canonized or not, who have passed through death and judgment and who now dwell in God’s presence forever. As we heard in the first reading, they are the ones who “survived the time of great distress” – or as St. Paul said in last Sunday’s readings, they are the ones who have competed well, who have run the race, who have kept the faith. The saints are our forerunners in life; they show us that holiness is possible, and that we too can one day achieve the blessedness they now enjoy.

However, while heaven is our goal and all of life is a kind of contest to reach it, we can’t assume that reaching that heavenly homeland is a guarantee. After all, among the Last Things, the alternative to Heaven is Hell, which we may not like to think of but which is a possibility if we reject God and his commandments, if we fail to run well the race of life. Allow me then to say something briefly about the second day that helps us remember the Four Last Things, the 2nd of November. On All Souls Day, we remember and pray for our loved ones who have passed from this life who are not saints, not yet – they are in need of still some purification (or purgation, which is where the word “purgatory” comes from) to be able to stand in God’s presence.

In recent years, I have noticed a disturbing trend in how many people – even many Catholics – speak about their loved ones who have passed away. They talk as if they know undoubtedly their loved ones are in heaven. While that sentiment might help us when we are grieving, we have to be very careful about presuming we know their fate. We may hope and even believe they are in heaven, but we should never presume such so definitively that we decide they no longer are in need of our prayers. I recall one of the most beautiful homilies I have ever heard was the one given by a priest at the funeral of his father, who was a famous and influential judge. He said to the congregation something to the effect of “Please do not let the love and admiration you had for my father in his earthly life dissuade you from praying fervently for his soul now that he has passed from this world.” Those words have always struck me as so very true. To believe that our loved ones are in the merciful embrace of Jesus is something we all want – but if that leads us to presume that they no longer need our prayers, we do them a great disservice.

Friends, I recently heard someone say, “If the Church isn’t making saints, then she isn’t making sense.” How true that is! The purpose of our faith, and the purpose of our Church, is to get us to heaven. As we begin this month of November, we honor today our brothers and sisters who are there now, rejoicing and helping us with their prayers. Tomorrow, in turn, we offer our prayers for others of our brothers and sisters who still are being purified, awaiting that final glorious vision of God face to face. Most importantly, perhaps, these days help us remember for ourselves the final things of our lives, the Last Things that await us, so that we may be ready to face them. May we strive to compete well in this trial of life – to finish the race, to keep the faith – so that one day we too may enter the glorious presence of that heavenly company.