"JOHN SMITH died yesterday at his home in London." With little variation except for name, place and age, the above obituary appears every day in almost every newpaper.
Few of us fail to scan the pages to see if anyone we might have known had died. Behind every announcement is a human story of heartbreak. Sometimes death comes like a thief in the night with no advance warning, and often a family is shattered by the happening.
ft may be a heart attack, as is
Fr John Gallagher
SJ looks at the
afterlife in the light of the feast of All Souls.
SO often the case, or an accident, or the end of a long illness. "You must help me," a widow said recently, "I'm going to need all the support I can get." Her husband of forty years is gone, and the loneliness, the grief, the emptiness set in.
Our Christian faith at this moment gives great support. We have the promise of the Risen Christ that He is preparing a home for us, the Christ who suffered, died, rose again so that we might share in His death and resurrection one day, so that we might five again for eternity.
Hie liturgy of the Mass of Resurrection, with its emphasis on hope, is strengthening. Everything is put in perspective. The grief is still there, but there is now new confidence. In this month of November, the Church prays especially for the dead. Activity, spiritual, mental, physical, is an anodyne. The death is not treated as a tragedy.
The thought of mortality is never far away from us. There is the ancient saying, "Timor mortis conturbat me" — "the fear of death disturbs me". Christ warned us several times to be always ready For the end of life.
In November we first honour the saints in heaven, then remember the souls of those still in Purgatory. In many Catholic countries, All Souls Day is a public holiday and people go to the graves of the dead to decorate them with flowers and to pray for them. The belief in the Communion of Saints is expressed in customs and devotions that bring home the reality of our common bond with God.
The commemoration of the dead is centred in the Sacrifice of the Mass. The family of God gathers in one mighty army to pray for those who have died. "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead" holy because the dead are with God, still bound to us by bonds of faith, wholesome because we are reminded of our own death and our ultimate meeting with God.
It is a day of faith and hope, summing up, as do all the great feast days of the Church, something of the great truths the Church has been commissioned to deliver.
Death is not merely the end of this life but the beginning of a new one. Life is changed not ended. We die with Christ so that we can rise with Him. Death came into the world because of sin.
We speak of death as a separation of body and soul. The separated soul, says St Thomas Aquinas, is more conscious of itself. At the end of the world the bodies of the dead will rise and be reunited with their souls. Jesus and Mary already participate in the resurrection of the body. At death we either go directly to heaven via puratory, or to hell.
A person, to be truly free, must have a choice as to whether or not he wishes to enjoy communion with God. We can train ourselves in a thousand ways, for eternal life. We learn that good and happiness are never found in selfishness and pride.
The liturgy recalls the death of Lazarus, the repentance of the good thief, the reception of Baptism and the Eucharist by the dead person. An ancient prayer says, "Almighty God, through the death of your Son on the cross, you have overcome death for us. Through His death and resurrection you have made the grave a holy place and restored to us eternal life.
"We pray for those who died believing in Jesus and are buried with Him in the hope of rising again. God of the living and the dead, may those who faithfully believed in you on earth praise you for ever in the joy of heaven."