Sacred Heart Cemetery - Charitable Works for Those Who Have Gone Before Us
Charitable Works for Those Who Have Gone Before Us
A little background
Losing someone close to us leaves us with a real sense of loss. We might recall that even our Lord wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (Jn 11:35). One of the things we always want to remember, though, is that we never really die, at least not in the sense that we usually think of death – as some sort of final end where the person who has died now ceases to exist altogether and forever. This is not true. The soul, our mind, our “consciousness” if you will, lives on and will never die. Our mother or father, or spouse or child, or brother or sister, or friend, neighbor, or relative who has died, whose soul has separated from their body, is still alive, still exists – in some state – and that will never end. This is simply a fact, it is the way God created the human soul; once created we will never cease to exist.
It is important to bear this in mind because it is very likely that the one who has died still needs us, still needs our help. In order to get into Heaven we have to be absolutely perfect. Heaven would not be Heaven (a place of perfect rest, of absolute satisfaction and contentment, of joy and happiness beyond our wildest imagination) if we were still stained with some sin or still had some attachment to this world or to some (venial) sin. If we were to enter Heaven in this condition, it would be something like trying to stare directly at the sun; it would be painful and we would have to turn away, in spite of the fact that the sun is good and is needed for life.
But how many people leave this life absolutely perfect, without any stain of sin or worldly attachment, without the least bit of self-will or selfishness? Probably very few, priests and religious included. This perfect cleansing is not easy to accomplish in this life because we are so susceptible to sin and temptation and even blindness to that which is not fit for God.
So God also created Purgatory for those who die in a state of grace (who have some friendship, some union, with God) but who still need some purification, some transformation. There are only two final ends: Heaven and Hell. And if we cannot go to Heaven unless we are perfectly united to God, then, if it were not for Purgatory, the only other option would be eternal hell. We see, then, that Purgatory is actually a great manifestation of God’s infinite mercy.
The existence, the reality, of Purgatory is a definitive teaching of the Church. We might want to take some time to read a little more about Purgatory. Two good sources are: 1) the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1030-1032), which can be found at this web site: ; this is the authoritative (definitive) source. Another source, less authoritative but still good and more detailed, is the writing St Catherine of Genoa, which can be found in a number of places, one of which is at this web site: . While the writings of the saints are not necessarily dogmatic, at the same time the Church does review all of the writings of saints before they are canonized. And so there is at least some implicit approval of what the saints have taught and lived. God does provide saints with “deeper insights” into His mysteries at times, and He does this so that we too might benefit as well. The “insights” of a canonized saint would not be something contrary to definitive Revelation; in fact the opposite is true – those deeper understandings would be contained in at least seed form within Revelation.
What we can do for those who have died
In Purgatory souls can no longer sin, which means (in contrast to this life) the purification can progress without any setbacks. But the purification that a soul goes through in Purgatory is painful; there is real suffering in Purgatory. The soul longs to be united with God in Heaven. It is something like an intense hunger or thirst. We might imagine being in an intensely hot desert, parched and extremely dry from the heat; we see water off in the distance but we can do nothing for ourselves to get to it; we simply have to wait until we are brought there.
The main point that we want to come, then, is this: A soul in Purgatory can no longer help themselves. They cannot do anything to expedite their own purification; they can only endure the suffering.But…we (those who still live in this world)can help them.
And how can we help them? We start by remembering them and remembering that they might (and probably do) still need our help. And we remember that we can still help them. But what can we do to really help them? We can:
Pray for them, perhaps the Rosary – a powerful personal prayer
We can offer personal sacrifices for them, like a day of fasting for example
We can embrace our own conversion more and more, which not only makes our prayer more powerful before God, but is a personal sacrifice in and of itself as well; it is also a personal and powerful way to remember our dead and benefit them
And, we can have Masses said for the repose of their soul.
Remembering our dead in this way is a truly good and charitable work.
It often happens that a desire wells up inside of us to do something good for those who have gone before us. That is a good and holy desire. But what do we do with it? So often people are tempted to build some sort of “shrine” commemorating the earthly life of their beloved dead – their work or some hobby pastime or some particular interest they had in this world. This is not evil, per se, but we cannot stress enough that those who have died (regardless of their current state) no longer have any interest in any of these things; they are done with this world and this life. A soul in Purgatory has only one burning desire to be united with God in Heaven. It is their complete and absolute focus; everything else has faded away; they have no thought of having themselves or what they did glorified in this world; they just don’t care about anything else except having their suffering end and getting into Heaven. So let us perform the great acts of charity on their behalf, those things listed above, as a means to help them along.
Can our prayers, sacrifices, and Masses be wasted?
Sometimes people might wonder: well suppose the one I am praying and offering sacrifices for is already at their final destination – either heaven or Hell. Am I not wasting my prayers or even wasting my time? We want to immediately recognize this thought or question as a temptation. It is, for one thing, a temptation away from a charitable work; and charitable works, done for another, may benefit the other, but they always benefit us – they draw us closer to God. It is also a temptation to rationalism, to playing God. Do we think that God does not know how to make perfect use of our prayers and sacrifices, even for a particular deceased one if they have reached their final destination? He’s God! He knows what He is doing and He knows how to make use of everything, especially any prayer or sacrifice we offer.
It is up to us, then, to simply do our part: pray and offer sacrifices and then place it in God’s hand who knows what to do. We have to let God be God. This is an act of humility, that great foundational virtue, without which we can never reach Heaven. This very act of humility will certainly benefit us and can benefit our beloved one who has died as well.
May the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.