“You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”
Why should we believe in purgatory? Why should we pray for our dead ones and offer Masses for the repose of their souls? How can we ever hope that the prayers of the living can affect the dead?
I had two Ebola – related experiences this last week. I introduced myself as a priest from Nigeria in a social gathering here in the Philippines and a fellow invitee at the event asked me rather worriedly, “How is the Ebola virus in Nigeria? When last were you home in Nigeria?” I was tempted to reply jokingly that I just got out of the hospital for Ebola! On a more serious note, I sensed that her questions reflected her genuine fear and anxiety about the deadly virus spreading to her vicinity.
The second experience was getting to read the truly inspiring story of Fr. Anthony Patrick S. Santianez, a Filipino Xaverian missionary priest from Samar currently stationed in Sierra Leone. Thousands have died from this deadly Ebola virus in Sierra Leone alone. When the Philippine government asked the Filipinos in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea if they we would like to be repatriated next month, Fr. Anthony said that his answer “was, is, and will be no.” His stated reason for choosing to stay in Sierra Leone rather than return to Philippines is very touching: “I am trying to be like the Good Shepherd, who does not abandon His sheep… The good shepherd lays down his life for ‘his sheep’ if necessary.”
Though Fr. Francis faces genuine fears about his own health, his faith in Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd who never abandons His sheep is what moves Him to stay with the Sierra Leoneans in their time of need. He humbly admitted that he once thought of leaving Sierra Leone but changed his mind when he received a touching request from one of his parishioners: “Father, don’t leave us. Stay with us, because if you leave us we will get afraid more.” He said, “This incident made me finally decide to stand by ‘my’ people, my parishioners, and ‘my’ countrymen and women.” In the midst of death and fear of death, this young priest chooses to stay with his flock till the end even if it means risking his own life.
These are two different personal reactions to the deadly Ebola virus. The difference lies in the depth of one’s faith in Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd who never abandons His sheep. Fr. Anthony’s witness shows how deeply he has allowed his faith in Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd to shape his life and attitude to life’s dangers. This faith in the Good Shepherd overcomes fears and makes us channels of hope to others because it brings us the certainty that God’s love binds Him to us inseparably.
Purgatory is a purification process whereby the flames of divine love offered to us in the heart of the Redeemer purifies the souls of the just after death in preparation for the perfect beatifying union with the infinitely Holy God. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their 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, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (CCC 1030-1031)
We believe in Purgatory and we confidently pray for our departed ones because we believe that Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, never abandons His friends who die in His grace. In life, in death, and beyond the grave, the love of the Good Shepherd remains effective and powerful enough to cleanse the souls of the deceased in preparation for heavenly vision.
This is the message in our Gospel passage. Jesus’ physical departure from His disciples through His death on the Cross and three days in the tomb was not to abandon them but to draw them ever closer to Him. Jesus allays their fears by calling them to have faith in Him as the Good Shepherd who never abandons His sheep: “You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” The Good Shepherd departs visibly from them only so as to “prepare a dwelling place for them” after which He will “come back again and take them to Himself so that where He is they too may be.” His intention in undergoing the Passion, Death and Resurrection is nothing but a more intimate union with those who are His already.
In the Second Reading, St. Paul calls the Christians in Rome to build their confidence on the Paschal mystery. Because Jesus Christ, “died, rather, was raised, is at the right hand of God, and indeed intercedes for us,” we are certain that nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not even death, nor life, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our prayer for the dead is thus grounded on this certainty of divine love being effective beyond the grave.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, there is so much fear in our world today. Ebola, terrorist attack, natural disasters, financial meltdowns, etc. We live with fears for the unknown future. And then there is the fear of death, our own death and the fate of our loved ones who have gone before us. We overcome these fears by our lively faith in Jesus Christ as our Good Shepherd who never abandons His sheep even in death. We are faithful to our vocation to be “Salt of the earth” and “Light of the world” when we dispel the darkness of fear in others by becoming channels of hope, confident that the love of the Good Shepherd can reach even beyond the grave.
Today’s Commemoration of the faithful departed poses these question to us: Is Jesus Christ our only shepherd? Do we rely on Him completely in all things? Do we surrender our sins to Him with confidence in His mercy in the sacrament of Confession? Do we let His words in scripture shape our lives and our attitudes? Do we allow Him to feed us with His graces in the Eucharist? To the extent that our faith in Jesus as the Good Shepherd shapes our lives do we overcome fears in our hearts, dispel these fears in others, and look at death with hope in the life after.
The First Reading reminds us that though the Good Shepherd never abandons His sheep, the sheep can and do abandon the Good Shepherd through unrepented sin. It is possible for us to profess that Jesus is our only Shepherd while we hold on to our idols. Led by their leader Judas in the fight for the sake of the Jewish laws and worship, the Israelites overcame their pagan adversaries and destroyed their shrines. But when they came to bury their dead, they found “under the tunics of each of the dead, amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids them to wear.”(2Mac 12:40) This is why Judas, “because he had the Resurrection of the dead in view,” made this atonement for the dead “so that they might be freed from this sin.” Judas’ intuition of life after the grave led him to perform this act of charity for the dead. We too who face our sins and weaknesses as well as those of others can always pray and hope in the power of divine love to redeem us in this life and in the next.
Allow me to end with another aspect of Fr. Anthony’s inspiring story. He spoke of the role that his mother played in his choice to stay in Sierra Leone: “Although my family knew from news reports what’s happening here, it surprised me when, amid all the confusion Ebola occasioned, my mother begged me to stay here. I knew outright it was God’s voice speaking through my mom.” In truth, only a mother who has a deep faith in the Good Shepherd and who believed that He will never abandon her priest-son will beg her son to risk his life for others so as to calm their fears.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we too have such a mother in the Blessed Virgin Mary. The words of the Archangel Gabriel are forever etched in her faithful heart: “The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid Mary… You have found favor with God.” She believed these words completely as attested to by Elizabeth, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” It was such a faith that kept her standing beneath the Cross consoling the beloved disciple as they watched the Good Shepherd breathe His last on the Cross so that we will never be separated from Him.
Let us celebrate today’s Eucharist with the faith of Mary as we welcome Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in our midst. In every Eucharist, He renews His assurance that He will never abandon us: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” (Jn 6:54) Welcoming Him with the faith of Mary, we can overcome our fears, abide in Him confidently as our Good Shepherd, bring hope to the living in this world of fears and pray for our departed love ones with confidence because we are certain that the Good Shepherd never abandons His sheep even in death.
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!