Sister Death

(Homily for All Souls Day)

In our sanctuary we have a traditional All Souls Day altar, as you would see in many homes in Latin America. It is a dominated by a crucifix and has images of various saints, as well as candles and items in memory of deceased loved ones such as their pictures and favorite foods.

Before giving the actual homily for All Souls Day, I would to thank those who worked on the parish raffle. I will have exact totals for next week’s bulletin, but our present tallies show that we earned over ten thousand much needed dollars for the parish. I want to thank all of you who purchased tickets. Some of you wrote on your ticket, “If I win, I will donate it to the parish.” I was praying one of those tickets would be drawn, but it was not to be.

The third prize winner ($500) was Teresa Evans from Puyallup. When I called her, she was quite surprised that a priest was calling her on Friday evening. I told her it was not because she had done something wrong, but because of good news. She told me her mom loaned her a dollar so she could buy the two dollar ticket. I asked if she was going to give half the money to her. She didn’t say.

The second prize of one thousand dollars went to a long time parishioner, someone who probably almost all of you know – Betty Weller. She was there present for the drawing. A parishioner also won the first prize. He had an appropriate name for the vigil of All Saints – Santos Gonzalez. Santos told me he had just recently gotten married. I gave him the advice I give to my nephews. If you receive any unexpected money, put it into an untouchable account for raising children. I am not sure if Santos listened to me more than my nephews do…

The raffle was a very good event. Our Stewardship Committee is making plans to do it again next spring.

Now for All Soul’s Day. I would like to begin by asking a very basic question. As Christians what should be our attitude toward death? Let's begin by admitting we feel the dread of death which is common to all people. Isaiah describes death as “the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations.” (25:7) The ancient Greeks considered man’s lot a most unhappy one. Unlike the gods (the “immortals”) we, and our loved ones, must die. We share that fate with other animals. However, unlike them we are aware of our mortality. No matter how much happiness we experience at any given moment, we know it will not last.

Death not only ends our earthly existence, it has a quality which repels us. When Jesus stood before the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he “groaned within himself.” (Jn 11:38) Faced with his own hideous death, Jesus pleaded with his Father and perspired in anguish. He was no Socrates calmly talking philosophy with his friends. Jesus fought death and all that it stood for – and so should we.

At the same time, by submitting to death, Jesus overcame its power. Because of Jesus, death has a different meaning. St. Francis captured it poetically in his Canticle of the Creatures. In the seventh and final strophe, he praises God for “our Sister Bodily Death.” No living person, he says, can escape her embrace.

Next to our Lord and his Blessed Mother, St. Francis was perhaps the person most prepared for death. He clung to nothing in this world – possessions, comfort, health, reputation. In the final years of his life, he received the stigmata which linked him physically to Christ’s suffering. He welcomed death as his sister.

Seeing death as our sister underscores another aspect of how we receive her. Anyone who has a sister knows that she sets the timetable, not you. Only a fool would try to control his sister. I am being a bit playful, but I have a very serious point. Today many people want to control death, to decide when it is time for them – and others – to die. A Christian can never take that approach. We have plain names for those schemes: suicide and murder.

There is a false compassion behind this. Of course, we want to do all we can to alleviate the suffering of others, but it can get twisted. If we say, "well that person is suffering too much, best to end his life painlesslessly," where do we stop? Many people consider their life is too painful and would like to end it. A high school student can get dropped by his girlfriend and fell so terrible he wants to kill himself. True compassion is not giving him some pills, but accompanying him, supporting him, trying to help him understand that what he is suffering has meaning or purpose. If the person with a terminal illness joins his sufferings to those of Christ, they have great value. We need to help our loved ones understand that, not just end it as quickly as possible.

I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago when I talked to you about Terri Schiavo. I am thankful that the Florida legislature passed a law allowing her feeding and water to be re-connected. On the other hand, I have to say that as a priest, I have been with families as they face difficult decisions regarding terminally ill loved ones. In most cases they tend to err on the side of what the Catechism calls “over zealous treatment.” We can - and should - reject medical procedures that are “burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome.” (#2278) My dad chose not have an operation which could have prolonged his life – but at great risk and, if he survived, very probably leaving him in bad condition. My dad chose to have several good days with his family.

I accompanied my mom when she made her will. With the lawyer we discussed the kind of care she would want at the end of her life. She said she would not want to be resuscitated if her heart stopped and that she would not want to be kept alive on a ventilator. However, she did want to receive water, even if it were through a tube. At the end she died peacefully in her sleep, but making out a living will was a responsible, loving thing for her to do. All of us should do the same for the sake of our family members.

I want to mention one very loving thing we can do – pray for family members – both living and deceased. I tried to explain in the bulletin why I think prayers for the dead are important. To use the example of my own family: we were moderately close, but like most families there were conflicts, harsh words, even some alienation and bitterness. To be eternally in one another’s presence will require some cleansing or purification. If that is the case on a human level, how much more so in our relation with God? He is pure, all holy. We are far from that. It is a great act of love to pray, especially at Mass, for our departed family members.

During these days between November 1st and 9th, it is possible to obtain a plenary indulgence for a deceased person by visiting a cemetery and say an Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be and the Profession of Faith (either Nicene or Apostles Creed). Also during that time one needs to receive communion and the sacrament of reconciliation. We will have confessions here this Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. One must go to Confession and receive Holy Communion some time during this period in order to obtain the Plenary indulgence. A PLENARY indulgence is a complete release from the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven. The Souls that you release from Purgatory will not only be grateful for your prayers, but they will in turn pray for you, and will be waiting to thank you when you reach Heaven...

Each Sunday we say that we believe in “the communion of saints.” That means we have ongoing bonds with those who have died. I experience that in a gentle way when I visit my parents’ grave. They cared for me - and that care continues. Jesus assures us that he will he will not reject anyone who comes to him. (Jn 6:37) It means so much to be able to say, “May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”


Earlier Version

Homily for All Saints: Loneliness and Lasting Communion

Bulletin (Praying for Departed Loved Ones, Tuesday's Election, Pro-Choice for Schools)


From Archives (2008 All Souls Day homily): Baptized Into His Death

All Saints Day: Loneliness and Lasting Communion

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Defending Partial Birth Abortion (warning: contains graphic description of abortion)