Article 55 – Paragraphs 624–628
Father John G. Hillier
Each year as we prepare to bring another New Year to life, many people struggle to greet another year without the physical company of their loved ones who died during the previous year. As we prepare to welcome 2017 the same is true for many.
A priest friend recently showed me photos he had taken when visiting the parish of a brother priest in Brooklyn, NY. The photos included various shots of a beautiful new chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph with a Columbarium (the final resting place for the cremated remains of Catholics and their relatives) built in the basement of the Basilica of Regina Pacis. The burial niches provide a beautiful and dignified environment for the deceased to be prayerfully honored and eternal life to be celebrated.
Many Catholics have chosen the option to be cremated since the Church updated its policy on cremation in 1997. Catholic teaching continues to stress, however, the preference for burial or entombment
of the body of the deceased in imitation of the burial of Jesus’ body.
No matter what option we may choose, the fact remains that we all must die! This is why, the Catechism explains, “by the grace of God” Jesus tasted death “for every one” (ccc 624). We know through our religious instruction that Christ “died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). But it is a fact that Christ also “tasted death” or experienced the “condition of death”. The separation of his soul from his body between the time he died on the cross and was raised from the dead is empathized in this section of the Catechism (cf. ccc 624). In other words, like the death of every human being, “Christ’s death was a real death in that it put an end to his earthly human existence” (ccc 627).
In the 4th century, Saint Gregory who was Bishop of Nyssa, explained that the body and soul separated at death were reunited to one another in the Resurrection of Jesus. Christ became the meeting point for death and life “by arresting in himself the decomposition of nature produced by death and so becoming the source of reunion for the separated parts” (ccc 625).
Commenting on Christ’s death, Saint John Damascene, an 8th century Doctor of the Church, further clarified the matter by explaining that in death, although the body and soul of Jesus were “separated from each other, both remained with one and the same person of the Word” (ccc 626).
Keeping in mind that the Jews believed that corruption or decay of the body would begin “on the fourth day following death” (ccc 627), Saint Thomas Aquinas’ observation some 400 years after Saint John Damascene, contained a double meaning. “Divine power,” Thomas says, “preserved Christ’s body from corruption” (ccc 627). He further explained that the power of God halted the corruption of Christ’s body after death both in terms of not allowing it to happen and breathing new, resurrected life into the dead Christ on the “third day” following his death. Therefore, Christ was no longer dead when the fourth day after his death arrived.
The final paragraph in this section of the Catechism speaks of the Sacrament of Baptism as “the descent into the tomb by the Christian who dies to sin with Christ in order to live a new life” (ccc 628). In short, for us Christians, our real death occurs at baptism when we enter the tomb with Christ. Saint Paul affirms this in his letter to the Romans: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
This last point is crucial for the follower of Christ. Although we mourn the passing of loved ones when they take their final breath, physical death does not have the last word. Physical absence does not mean that the person who died no longer exists. Rather, for the Christian believer, life has not ended but changed. Our destiny beyond the grave is heaven, hell or purgatory. Heaven is for the perfect or for those faithful who have learned how to love – unconditionally. Hell is for those who have deliberately rejected all that is good and holy including God’s invitation to love. Purgatory is like finishing school – for those who have fallen short of their potential to love but have never stopped trying. Now they need a final helping hand from others.
Are there abandoned souls in purgatory? If there are, it is not because they are abandoned by God or the Son of God who died for them. This is partly what the communion of Saints is all about. When others love us, they help us to love. This is what praying for the dead is all about. Our reaching out in love with our prayers for family, friends and strangers who happen to be dead is the best final gift we can offer them.