Fr James Clark
“Death where is thy victory, o death where is thy sting?” 1st Cor 15:55
As a teenager I was very fortunate like many of the clergy in the Faith movement to have been a pupil at The John Fisher School and to have received much of my early formation from Dan Cooper. Every November he would encourage us boys to gather at morning break time in the rear side chapel to pray for our beloved dead. And part of the prayers we would say together included the words of St Paul to the people of Corinth, “Death where is thy victory, o death where is thy sting?”. Dan would remind us of the real need to pray for the holy souls, most especially for those who sadly had no one to pray for them. Heaven after all is not a “human right” nor is it an “automatic process” of existence for as Jesus said, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven…try to enter through the narrow door (Luke 13:24).” Our modern secular culture finds these words contrary to its own self-centred understanding of eternity, and during the ongoing international pandemic, death and what happens next has been at the forefront of many minds.
“Death where is thy victory, o death where is thy sting?” St Paul goes on to explain that “the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor 15:56). Scripture experts will know that St Paul was referring to the Prophet Hosea, who wrote “I will ransom them from the power of Sheol; I will redeem them from Death. Where, O Death, are your plagues? Where, O Sheol, is your sting? Compassion is hidden from My eyes” (Hosea 13:14). In the Faith Movement we are familiar with the Doctrine of Original Sin and the consequences of Adam’s fall from grace including that of bodily death and separation of the eternal soul. But to the society around us including the generations of Catholics who haven’t received a complete catholic education in the last “fifty years” the words of St Paul simply “go over their heads” and at face value don’t bring them much in the way of consolation.
When I saw photographs of Italian priests standing in churches emptied of pews and lined with coffins, I mentally prepared myself for what could have happened here. And although I have never had so many funerals and grieving families to listen to in a calendar year, the number of deaths wasn’t anywhere near the scale it could have been. For each of these grieving families, the pandemic and its primary consequence of death did appear to have a victory, in that they had suddenly lost a loved one, and in some cases more than one. The “sting” of death was certainly felt, and like the sting of a wasp it was sudden, real and painful. The late Jackie Kennedy-Onassis is believed to have said to her grieving sister-in-law Ethel, “Let me get the priest, the Church does death very well.”
Like any death, a Covid death brings home the reality that the loved one is no longer here. For the lapsed it’s an opportunity to reengage with the local priest and to seek comfort and strength. And “to do what mum would have wanted…” It’s an opportunity for the priest to encourage a return to practicing the faith with regular Sunday mass and to explain why we pray for the departed soul. “Come and light a candle for your mum and say a special prayer for her each week after mass…” That first meeting with a newly grieving family is a chance to enable them to see that the Christian meaning of death is revealed in the light of the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ in whom resides our only hope.
So why pray for the dead, surely little old holy Mrs. Smith will go straight to heaven? Well, the Catechism reminds us in paragraphs 1030-1032: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” So yes Mrs. Smith may indeed have gone straight to heaven, but it’s wrong to assume we knew her completely and a sin to make an presumption of God’s mercy.
So therefore in this time of false hope that “everyone gets into heaven no matter what” the Church’s teaching on Purgatory is as important now as it has ever been. The catechism in paragraph 1031 continues with a comforting reminder that Purgatory as a place of suffering is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. And for those with non-Catholic Christian friends it’s always handy to remember both 1 Cor 3:15 [“But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames”] and 1 Peter 1:7 [“so that the proven character of your faith—more precious than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ”]. And of course the best known of all biblical quotes is taken from the Old Testament “And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” 2 Maccabees 12:45-46. We the Church, the body of Christ pray for the dead because quite simply it is biblical to do so and out of our charity, ie we do so for love of them so that they may rest in peace.
In an article for the Catholic Herald a few years ago, Fr Lawrence Lew OP quoted St Thomas More on the topic of the holy souls, [they] “have been recommended unto God and eased, helped, and relieved both by the private prayers of good virtuous people, and especially by the daily Masses and other ghostly [ie spiritual] suffrages of priests, religious, and folk of Holy Church”. Fr Holloway would sometimes say that St Thomas Aquinas never quite got all the answers in terms of philosophy and theology, and that Duns Scotus was better. Well in terms of Purgatory and how do our prayers actually help the holy souls, St Thomas doesn’t really give us any further depth, except to say that somehow it works through our acts of prayer and charity. In paragraph 1032 the catechism quotes St John Chrysostom “Let us help and commemorate them [the holy souls]. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
On All Souls Day many faithful Catholics, perhaps mostly the retired will visit the graves of their loved ones and to pray for them. Some parishes will arrange a mass to be offered within the cemetery and the clergy will then sprinkle the graves with holy water. The Litany of Divine Mercy and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary are worthy of our attention during this entire month and to offer them for the Holy Souls. Perhaps one day in heaven we will meet one such holy soul who will have been cleansed from their attachment to sin through our various pious prayers, penances and sacrifices, and will express their gratitude to us.
Yes Jackie Kennedy-Onassis was right “the Church does do death very well” because at the centre of our prayers for the departed is the requiem mass, when the sacrifice of calvary is represented and we are able to pray for the departed soul and to commend the departed to the almighty Father. Of all the prayers of the requiem mass which are recited out loud but slowly and reverently, the prayer which the lapsed seem to grasp and take to heart are the comforting words “Merciful Lord, turn toward us and listen to our prayers; open the gates of paradise to your servant and help us who remain to comfort one another with assurances of faith, until we all meet in Christ and are with you and with our brother/sister forever…” It’s an expression of communion between the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven, allowing the deceased to pass from the community of mourners into the community of those who are already with God. In fact, all the prayers for the Dead are all rooted in the theological virtue of hope and its that hope of being reunited with their loved one that carries people through their grief.
“Death where is thy victory, o death where is thy sting?” for us devout Catholics, death is a victory in that we can finally see Jesus the Lord of the Cosmos face to face and therefore death has no sting in its tail for our reward is great in heaven.
So let us pray for all our departed loved ones, benefactors and friends, and of course those from the Faith Movement. “Almighty and eternal God, from whose love in Christ we cannot be parted, either by death or life: hear our prayers and thanksgivings for all whom we remember this day; fulfil in them the purpose of your love; and bring us all, with them, to your eternal joy; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”