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It’s OK to celebrate the dead, but it’s better to pray for them

Well, I still haven’t mastered the art of writing columns AHEAD of major Catholic feasts and observances. Fortunately, in the case of the holy souls, the Church gives me an entire month to get caught up.

It is November, the month dedicated by the Church to praying for the souls in Purgatory. And I’d like to start my reflections by taking a look at the place where we first begin to pray for a departed soul — at the funeral.

Over the past few years, “funerals” seem to be going the way of the internal combustion engine, being replaced by the now-ubiquitous “celebration of life.” It’s not difficult to understand why this is happening. A “celebration of life” seems happy. We picture balloons and champagne and lots of hugs and funny stories. Whereas funerals bring to mind black attire, solemn tones and sobbing people gathered around a gigantic hole in a frozen graveyard.

Who wouldn’t want to opt for the party?

A celebration of life is a wonderful thing. We show our gratitude to God for the gift of this person in our lives. We remember them, we tell stories about them, we celebrate them. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a new invention. We Catholics have been celebrating the lives of our deceased family and friends for millennia. We just didn’t call it a celebration of life. We called it a wake. Or a funeral reception. Or “the trip to the bar after the burial ceremony.”

We just didn’t do them instead of the funeral.

Funerals and celebrations of life are two very different ceremonies, with two very different purposes. A celebration of life looks backward, to the details of the recently-ended earthly life of the deceased.

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A funeral, on the other hand, looks forward — to the new life the recently-deceased is entering into.

I have often heard the saying “funerals are for the living.” But I would beg to differ. The Catholic funeral Mass is ordered primarily for the benefit of the deceased. We are offering the highest form of prayer we have — the Mass — for them as they embark on their journey into everlasting life.

So why would they need prayers for that?

Think about it for a minute. What sort of people is Heaven filled with? People who are perfect, no? We know Heaven is perfect happiness and perfect peace. So it would obviously be true that there are no argumentative people in Heaven. No complaining people. No backstabbing people. No unpleasant people of any sort. A perfect Heaven has to be filled with perfect people, or it is not perfect. Would you want your irritating co-worker to join you in Heaven, being his or her same irritating self? Of course not. Heaven would no longer be Heaven.

But what sort of people are we now? Well, I’m darned certain we aren’t the perfect people of Heaven. We are, to varying degrees, petty and unpleasant. At least we are too petty and unpleasant for the perfection of Heaven.

We also need to think about what is required to see God “face to face.” God the Father, the creator of the universe, is not the type of being we just glance at and say “hi.” He is perfect love, perfect justice, and perfect power. The Old Testament reminds us repeatedly that looking upon the “face” of God is a very big deal. “[N]o man can see me and live.” (Ex 33:20)

There is a meme going around with a quote from the great Peter Kreeft that says “But if you really think that you can endure and enjoy the full light and fire of God a second after you die, being essentially the same kind of being you are now, without any additional divine operation on your soul, then you dangerously underestimate either your sinful nature or God’s holiness or the gap between them.”

The book of Revelation tells us that nothing unclean shall enter Heaven (cf. Rev 21:27). That includes us.

So it is clear that, if we are so fortunate as to attain eternal life in Heaven, we must somehow go from the people we are here on earth to the people we need to become to be there. For most of us, that would involve some kind of transformation — a cleaning, a purification. What it looks like, we cannot know with certainty. We do know that it will not overcome our free will. Heaven is perfect freedom, not perfect enslavement. If we were unwilling or unable to behave perfectly on earth, something in us needs to change to for us to freely chose to become the perfect creatures Heaven requires. We need to let go of all of our sinfulness. All of it.

Can that process happen instantaneously? Does it happen over time? Is there even time there as we understand time?

We don’t know. But we do know that we can pray for our loved ones as they go through that transition. 2 Maccabees 12:46 says, “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosened from their sins.”

And so, in the beautiful Catholic funeral rite, we pray for them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “In the Eucharist, the Church expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify his child of his sins and their consequences, and to admit him to the Paschal fullness of the table of the Kingdom” (CCC 1689).

I love reminiscing and telling stories about my departed loved ones. But I also love the beauty and solemnity of a Catholic funeral Mass. Sure it’s sad. But death is sad, and it is folly to deny that. In the funeral, we proclaim that God has overcome death. We express our ultimate hope in His love, and we entrust the departed to him.

So yes, please look back and celebrate their lives. But don’t forget to look ahead as well, to the life that they are entering into. And don’t deprive them of the highest form of prayer we have — a funeral Mass — as they begin that journey.

Mary Beth Bonacci
Mary Beth Bonacci
Mary Beth Bonacci has been giving talks on love and relationships across the United States and internationally for . . .well . . . her entire adult life. She was among the first Catholic speakers to introduce audiences to St. John Paul II’s beautiful Theology of the Body. She is the founder of Real Love, Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting respect for God’s gift of human sexuality. Her book Real Love, based on the Theology of the Body, has been translated into ten languages. She is also the author of We’re on a Mission from God, writes a monthly column for Catholic newspapers and contributes regularly to the Catholic Match Institute blog.
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