by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The first two days of the church’s November liturgical calendar remind us that this world is not our final destination. In fact, our time on earth is very brief compared to eternity.
November 1, All Saints’ Day, reminds us of all those people of faith and virtue who have gone before us and now dwell in heaven. In the Book of Revelation, St. John recounts receiving a vision of God’s heavenly court that contained “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue” (7: 9). John is told that “these are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7: 14).
For those of us still on this earthly pilgrimage where there is much stress and distress, it is comforting to know about this huge, diverse throng in heaven who will not hunger or thirst anymore and for whom God has wiped every tear from their eyes (Rv 7: 16-17). November 2, All Souls’ Day, reminds us that a final purification will be necessary for most, before we enter into the New Jerusalem where there is no more hunger, thirst, tears, pain or death.
Today, many Catholics appear to ignore the church’s understanding of purgatory. Some balk at the idea that someone who believed in Jesus as Lord and Savior will need to experience a purification. Purgatory, some argue, appears to place limits on God’s mercy. In reality, purgatory is the ultimate expression of God’s mercy. God desires to purify us, not to punish us. If we remain attached to the things of this world, we will be incapable of experiencing the depth of God’s mercy and the fullness of his joy.
In St. Mark’s account of Our Lord’s response to a question regarding what is the first commandment, Jesus refers the scribe to the Book of Deuteronomy, verses that are the foundation for Jewish spirituality: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”(6: 4-5). Jesus immediately adds what he identifies as the Second Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In so doing, Jesus makes clear that the love of our fellow human beings is an inevitable consequence or fruit of our love for God.
Reflecting on these two commandments is an excellent tool for a good examination of conscience. We need to ask ourselves the question: Do I love God with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength? Is God first in my life? Do I seek first consolation and strength from other sources than God? When I feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges, do I turn to God or do I seek consolation in things, creature comforts, pleasures or human relationships?
What do you prefer doing rather than spending time with God? What do you choose to do rather than pray? Where do you first seek solace and comfort? Do I turn to distractions such as entertainment or sports? Do I seek comfort in material things, food, pleasures or friendships, rather than turning to God? None of these things are necessarily bad or evil in themselves. The question is what or who has my heart? God? Or something or someone else?
We are created to be in communion with God. Only friendship with God can fill the deepest longings of our souls. However, our sin-fractured world seeks to entice us to believe that we need all sorts of “things” other than God. If we love God with all our soul, heart, mind and strength, we will actually be better equipped to love others as well as enjoy the beauty and consolations of this world. In the saints, we catch a glimpse of what is necessary to cultivate our hearts to desire God before everything else.
Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas priest who died in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Korean War, has been in the news recently. Through DNA testing, the army was able to confirm finding his mortal remains that are now entombed in Wichita’s cathedral. Father Kapaun’s cause for canonization is currently underway.
A significant part of the impetus for his canonization was the testimony of the survivors of the POW camp where Father Kapaun died. At the cessation of the Korean War when the liberating forces freed the prisoners of this camp, they noticed something different in their attitude, distinguishing them from other liberated POWs. The POWs from Father Kapaun’s camp had a hope, a camaraderie and concern for each other. When these POWs were questioned about the source of their remarkable spirit, many attributed it to Father Kapaun.
Through his example, Father Kapaun taught his fellow POWs that they were still free. They were clearly not free in the way our contemporary culture thinks of freedom — the freedom to do whatever I want, when I want, as long as it does not hurt anyone else too badly. Father Kapaun modeled for the men a biblical, Christian understanding of freedom — the ability to choose the good and the noble.
Father Kapaun reminded his fellow POWs that they were still free to love and praise God. They were still free to care and sacrifice for one another. They were even free to love their captors who treated them harshly and at times cruelly. Father Kapaun witnessed for them that they could even use their suffering to grow in virtue. This kind of witness of heroic love and compassion for others is only possible from one who has given his heart completely to God.
Another example of a relatively modern-day saint is Mother Teresa, who left her ministry as a teacher to care for the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta. Once a benefactor of Mother Teresa, who had spent time observing her and her Sisters caring for the dying, the sick and the poor, confessed to Mother Teresa that even for a million dollars he could not do what she and her Missionary of Charities were doing. Mother Teresa responded that a million dollars could not motivate her either to do her special ministry. Only the love of Jesus could inspire and empower her to do what she was doing.
In order to be able to experience what God has prepared for his saints, we must free ourselves from our attachments to so many things other than God. If we are unable to liberate ourselves from these worldly attachments in this life, then after our death, God with his merciful and unconditional love will free us from these idols.
During this month of November, it is a time to remember the saints and all of our loved ones who have died. With our prayers we can accompany them as they experience this purification and liberation from their attachments to things other than God. It is also a time to ask the saints to intercede for us so that we can gain freedom from attachments to things, comforts and pleasures that can never satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. We can ask the Lord and ask our saint friends to help us achieve this freedom now in order to speed up our reunion with them in heaven.