You know, as a priest, you see many things and sometimes you see things that do not necessarily go as planned. A number of years ago I was in a cemetery for a graveside service on a bright sunny day. A woman had died and her children and friends had gathered for the funeral. I concluded the Church’s prayers at the graveside and stepped to the side. The funeral director then stepped in front of the people to share a few words. A service that this particular funeral home provided for a fee was to release a flock of doves. The doves were trained to circle around in the air. As the birds did this the director would offer a few words about how the doves represented the already departed members of the deceased’s family. The director would then release a single dove – representing the recently deceased. This bird was trained to join the flock and then all the birds would fly off (back to the funeral home). Well, the flock was released and was circling in the air and the director said his few words. Then the director released the one dove. That bird flew up, saw the flock and bee-lined it in the opposite direction! And behind me I heard someone say, “Well, she never really cared much for her family!”
On this Feast of All Souls I do not have a flock of birds nor do I have any other gimmicks. What the Church simply has at the moment of death, loss and suffering is the Word of God, our faith and our belief in the mercy of God.
It has been noted that one of the primary works of the Holy Spirit is to continually remind us of what God has done through Jesus Christ, to continually lead us back to Scripture and learn anew and with new depth of understanding what God has done. In moments of pain and loss we can forget. In these moments God remembers for us and God invites us into this sacred remembering! “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them … Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love …” (Wis 3:1,9) “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our heart through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:5) Hope springs from this remembering. We remember not what we have done but what God has done and continues to do for us! Jesus said, “And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.”(Jn 6:38)
It is a good and beautiful thing to pray for the departed. Our prayers assist our loved ones and they quicken our own hearts! Hope as gift of the Holy Spirit does not come through some magic formula or esoteric demands but rather through daily and often ordinary choices. When we pray we are making a choice for hope. When we pray for our dearly departed we remind ourselves of the greater reality that life is not ended but changed at the moment of death! Death is not the final word. When we were lost in sin and death and could no longer remember, God remembered for us and sent his Son, who died that we might have life and that we might not be forgotten and lost through death.
It is a holy thing to pray for the departed.
I believe that one of the most beautiful things the Church does is the Rite of Christian Burial. It is simple, honest, straight-forward and beautiful. It does not need gimmicks. Throughout the Rite we find the proclamation of faith and the proclamation of God’s mercy. Sometimes the wisdom of the Church is displayed in what she does not say and this is evidenced in the funeral rite. Throughout all the prayers and rituals of the rite we proclaim our hope in the resurrection and we commend the dearly departed to the mercy of God and we go no further. God alone sees into the human heart. God alone makes the final judgment. We, on our part, commend to God’s mercy.
It is a beautiful and holy and hope-filled thing to pray for our dearly departed.