Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio is the story of a journey up the mountain of purgatory, towards the paradise of eternal life with God. In Purgatorio, faithfully departed souls ascend towards God, climbing closer to heaven as their souls are purified and made perfect by his grace.
The book begins at the foot of the mountain of purgatory. There, Dante encounters a friend—Bellacqua, a man he had known for years. Bellacqua has not yet begun climbing the mountain of purgatory. He explains to Dante that he must wait to be purified, because he waited most of his life before turning to the mercy of God. He will wait for years, Bellacqua says, unless “I am helped by prayer that rises from a heart that lives in grace.”
Dante’s vision of purgatory is a literary depiction of an indescribably beautiful reality. We do not know what purgatory is like. But we do know that the souls in purgatory depend upon and benefit by our prayers. And we know that as we pray for the dead, they grow closer to eternal unity with the Blessed Trinity. The dead are aided, as Dante wrote, by prayers that rise from hearts that live in grace.
Next week, on Memorial Day, May 25, I will celebrate Holy Mass for the souls of our beloved dead at Calvary Cemetery in Lincoln, our diocesan cemetery. Because it is Memorial Day, we will remember, in a particular way, those who gave their lives in heroic service to our country. But we will pray for all those souls in our families, our parishes, and our communities, who have died. Praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy—a charitable commitment to the salvation of their souls.
We pray for the dead, and honor them, and remember them, and care for their bodies, because the faithfully departed remain members of our Christian community, the body of Christ. The souls in purgatory need our prayers. The souls in heaven pray for us. And the whole Church will be united as our bodies are resurrected in the glory of heaven. Our Church is not separated by death, and our duties and responsibilities for one another do not end at death.
Catholic cemeteries speak to the unity of the dead and the living in the life of Jesus Christ. Cemeteries are sacred places, holy ground, beautiful and quiet, set apart for prayer, and for remembrance of the dead. Catholic Cemeteries are set apart to suitably honor the bodies which God created, and which will be resurrected in the fullness of time.
It is a blessing to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, where the dead are prayed for daily, in memory of their blessed lives, and in hope for their eternal salvation. It is a blessing to be buried in a place set apart as sacred—blessed, consecrated, and entrusted to Jesus Christ.
We have a modern tendency to dispose of the dead very quickly and efficiently, without proper respect for the bodies God made. Cremation, of course, is permissible in Catholic teaching. But the burial of bodies is preferred, when possible, because burial speaks to the beauty and dignity of the human body. And we should not forget that our bodies are holy and sacred—they are redeemed in baptism, they have received the Eucharist, and been anointed, and they are made to be resurrected, and to share eternity with God.
There are many Catholic cemeteries throughout the Diocese of Lincoln. They are beautiful and holy places. Calvary Cemetery, in the city of Lincoln, is expanding its available space, and beautifying its consecrated ground. Cemeteries are places in which we can pray for the dead, and help them to become more holy.
Please join me for Holy Mass on Memorial Day. Or, if you can, take a moment, in a Catholic cemetery, to pray for all holy souls in purgatory. Pray that they might be made ever more perfect, and know God ever more deeply. Pray for our beloved dead, daily. When holy souls enter the court of heaven, may they remember our charity, and pray for each one of us.