By ARCHBISHOP GREGORY J. HARTMAYER, OFM Conv. | Published October 28, 2022 | En Español
As the year is drawing to an end, nature is, in a sense, preaching a silent sermon to us. The days are getting shorter, the air is cooler, trees are shedding leaves. We are in a season marked by death. The beauty of the fall colors gives way to bare trees and barren fields.
In the midst of the change of seasons, the church invites us to reflect on the end of life and the reality of death, especially during the month of November. Everything we now see around us will one day come to an end. The Book of Ecclesiastes states, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.”
We are born, we live and we die. St. Ambrose tells us we should have “a daily familiarity with death.” St. Benedict would say, “Keep death before your eyes always.” This is not meant to be a morbid exercise because we know that beyond the sleep of death lies new life in the power of the Risen Christ. And so we can say, “Life is changed, not ended.” We are pilgrims on this earth, whether it is for a short or long time, the reality is that we are just passing through.
As Christians, we are encouraged to reflect on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. In doing so, we are reminded of the transitory nature of this world. While we may not give the last things much attention in our daily lives, the liturgy brings into focus. While each of these words has the power to create anxiety, uncertainty and fear within ourselves, we reflect on them in the light of Christian hope.
In our own lives, we all have lost loved ones, sometimes very suddenly or after a long illness. We have mourned and grieved for them because we miss their physical presence. This is very natural, and grief is a deep expression of our love. When Jesus heard that Lazarus had died, he wept for him, even though he knew what he would do in raising him from the dead. It is as if Jesus wanted to come even closer to us, in his sacred humanity, to console and comfort us as we confront the death of those we love.
The late Cardinal Basil Hume of Westminster wrote, “Death is a formidable foe until we learn to make it a friend. Death is to be feared if we do not learn to welcome it. Death is the ultimate absurdity if we do not see it as fulfilment. Death haunts us when viewed as a journey into nothingness rather than a pilgrimage to a place where true happiness is to be found.”
While we have lived through the experience of someone we love, we know that God has planted hope within us, and like St. Paul, we can say, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” This sentiment is echoed in the funeral liturgy, “The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.”
By his own death and resurrection, Jesus has won the victory, and so we are filled with hope.
We know that after death, there will be judgment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith” (CCC no. 1021). It continues, “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven-through a purification or immediately, or immediate and everlasting damnation” (CCC no. 1022).
‘Judged on love’
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus urgently warns us to be ready for judgment. He does this in many ways, but mostly through parables, which powerfully portray the drama of human life, the need to make decisions and the consequences of the decisions. While the thought of judgment may be disconcerting, we are encouraged by the words of St. John of the Cross, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love.”
Regarding hell, we are told that at the particular judgment, hell is a possibility. The church simply says that hell is a permanent separation from God, for those who, despite God’s persistent offer of mercy and grace, decisively say, “No thanks, I don’t want you or what you have to offer” (CCC no. 1033). And finally, the reality of heaven is described, “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they ‘see him as he is’, face to face” (CCC no. 1023).
On All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), the church invites us to recall the untold millions of faithful people who, often in hidden and seemingly ordinary and even mundane ways, have lived lives of extraordinary faith, courage and fidelity and who, no less than the canonized saints, enjoy the fullness of life with God in heaven. We have known many of them ourselves, even in our own families.
On the following day, we celebrate All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2) as the day when we especially remember and pray for all our loved ones who have departed from this world, but still await the day when their souls will join the company of that great multitude which we recall the day before. The Catechism states, “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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect” (CCC no. 1031). The Holy Souls cannot help themselves, but we can assist them by our prayers and sacrifices. And once they enter into heaven, they in turn will help us.
God desires that we spend eternity with him in heaven. The Beatitudes, recounted in Matthew’s Gospel, are essentially the roadmap by which we get there. In the words of Pope Francis, “This is the way of holiness, and it is the very way of happiness. It is the way that Jesus travelled. Indeed, He himself is the Way: those who walk with Him and proceed through Him enter into life, into eternal life.”
May the Lord grant us his peace.