Hints of death surround us. Nature’s intimations range from autumn leaves at this time in the Northern hemisphere and wrinkles and grey hairs noticed in the mirror: many more for me since taking over as archbishop! Snapdragons are so-called because if you squeeze the flower it resembles a dragon’s mouth; but when it dies, the seed pod looks just like a skull and would not be out of place with the ghoulies of Halloween…
In addition to such natural reminders, there are man-made ones. Our media record drive-by shootings, multiple homicides in schools, terrorist attacks and more mundane deaths, far away or only next door. We memorialise them with crosses, gravestones, war memorials, musical and liturgical requiems. Hans Holbein the Younger’s extraordinary 1533 work, The Ambassadors, shows two men in their prime dressed sumptuously and surrounded by symbols of culture, wealth and power. But an “anamorphic skull”, a sort of 3D Magic Eye image visible only at an angle, hovers below them, a reminder that these things do not las
Rather than seed pods or art works some used keep real skulls as reminders. The second Archbishop of Sydney, Roger Bede Vaughan OSB, kept one on his desk when Rector of St John’s College at Sydney University – a reminder to himself and the students that nothing lasts forever. Sure enough, he was fated to die before 50. Even more macabrely, some people used sleep in coffins and the Capuchins would decorate churches with elaborate displays of their forefathers’ bones, including skeletons in friars’ habits doing things like praying or having dinner together!
Fear not, this is not my latest idea for redecorating our cathedral! But what each of these memento mori was intended to do was to intrude a certain seriousness into lives too frivolous, to confront us with a reality we’d rather not face, to call us to pray for those unable to intercede for themselves.
Unfortunately, these things can be less effective in modernity, which turns dying into entertainment, trivialising it with horror films, computer games and nightly TV death tolls, so images of death titillate rather than warn us. When not reducing death to recreation, we try to tame it, warehousing the elderly and dying in institutions so we don’t have to see, or even medicalising the enemy of true medicine, through talk of giving people a lethal dose of mercy.
Ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve death has been a brute fact of human existence, an inevitable consequence of our separation from pure Immortality who is God. Though sometimes we might reasonably welcome death, our normal response is recoil: all bodily beings naturally resist coming to an end, even if an end is natural for them; all spiritual beings resist coming to an end, because ending is deeply unnatural for them. For beings like us, uniquely both body and soul, it means unity torn asunder and neither body nor soul makes sense any longer. To be confronted by this loss in someone we love, or by this possibility for ourselves, is to be forced to ask the question: “what next”? Try as we might to avert or trivialise or tame death at this point, Pope Benedict once said, “the metaphysical breaks through” (Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, p.70).
Yesterday, the Church celebrated All Saints Day, giving thanks to God for the Church Triumphant in heaven, those of us who’ve passed the threshold between earthly and eternal life and now enjoy that dreamed of state where every tear is wiped away (Isa 25:6-9). Today, on All Souls Day, we remember those still on the way, the Church Suffering in Purgatory. The holy souls answer for us the unavoidable question “after death, what next?”
Through lives of faith, hope and love, through repentance from sin and co-operation with grace in their good works, they maintained, however imperfectly, their friendship with God and so have been found worthy to enter God’s Kingdom… but not just yet. Theirs is the sure and certain hope of life eternal with God intimated in Christ’s Resurrection (Mk15:33-39; 16:1-6) and promised in our epistle (Rom 5:5-11).
So why the wait? Why aren’t all remembered on All Saints Day? To put it another way: why purple or black for requiems rather than the more fashionable white? Well, from the earliest times Christians prayed for the dead: were those dead already in heaven this would be nonsense; there’s nothing we can do to make the saints better. Ash Wednesday and All Souls Day declare: Lest we forget: remember you are dust and that to dust you shall return; remember the dead and pray for their salvation.
A Protestant friend once declared himself a connoisseur of funerals and told me he liked Catholic ones best. He found them more hopeful and, more importantly, got a sense Catholics felt like they could actually do something for their dear departed. My friend didn’t understand theological controversies about offerings for the dead; he just knew this was a queer thing Catholics do and Protestants don’t but which made sense to him humanly.
It turns out, of course, that my friend was right theologically as well as humanly. The Scriptures declare it a good and pious thing to pray for dead. The Tradition tells us we’ve a role to play interceding for each other, including those who have died. Our prayers and sufferings offered for the holy souls quicken the process of their being readied for heaven.
Purgatory, though best minimised, is a great mercy. Though we might die in God’s friendship, we might well not be ready to see Him face to face: that would be altogether too shameful, having made ourselves less than we should be, too painful, having made ourselves less than we could be. God, in His mercy, readies us for eternity with Him by purifying us of our sins and their effects on our character, like gold refined in a furnace (cf Isa 48:10, Zec 13:9; Prov 17:3).
And if the offer of Purgatory is a mercy, so its prospect is a cause of hope. However we’ve messed up our lives, however we’ve messed up ourselves in the process, if we turn back to Christ He will fix us and we will find rest for our souls (Mt 11:25-20).
This is an edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher at the Mass of Commemoration of All Souls Day at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 2 November 2015.