The question of death

A good question for today, and one I was asked yesterday, is why Christianity sometimes seems to be so focussed on death?

It’s true, sometimes we read and hear a lot about death, but also about the life that comes after. On the Cross, after all, Jesus Christ saved us, for all time, from eternal death, so to ignore it in our faith would be rather foolish. But does that mean that our life here on earth is nothing but a prelude to what comes later, a time of preparation and not a life of positives an negatives in its own rights? Certainly not.

We currently (assuming that my entire readership consists of people here on earth, of course…) live in God’s creation. This is where our earthly life takes place, and God created it because he desired to do so, and He intends us to life in it. To not life that life to the fullest in the Creation that God has given us responsibility for (Gen. 1:28), would be negligence.

God also went to great lengths to assure that life would endure, that His creation would not be left empty. An example is the story of Noah (Gen. 6:9 – 8:22).

In Jesus Christ, God desired to grant man the fullness of life (Matt. 4:4). Throughout the Gospels we find reports of how Jesus restored people to the fullness of their lives, in the miracles He performed. And, as I wrote before, Christ died and rose again to be victorious over death (Rom 6:10).

So to say that our life here on earth only matters as a time of preparation for what is to come is not true. But that is not the same as saying that the time to come does not matter, or that we should not prepare for it.

Death is a reality. Some day our life here on earth will end, and after a shorter or longer time we will enter into the eternal life with God. In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, we read much cryptic language about the end times, but we may be assured from this text that death no longer has any power of those belonging to Christ. That is us. But our earthly life will end, and we will meet the Lord face to face afterwards. It is good, even necessary to prepare for that. As Christians, it is good to have some preoccupation with death, although it should not be a singular preoccupation, because we also have a duty in life.

Today is All Souls’ Day, on which we remember all who have died; those who are with the Lord, those who are not, and those who someday will be. We all belong to the second or third category. A prayer for the dead is also a prayer for ourselves.

Photo credit: Inge Verdurmen

Art credit: ‘The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs’, by Fra Angelico (1423-4) © The National Gallery, London

Pie Jesu

An emotional high point of yesterday All Souls Mass at the church of Saint Francis here in Groningen. Fauré’s Pie Jesu was sung a cappella after Communion. In the prayerful silence the lone soprano voice called to my mind the imagery of a departed soul leaving everything earthly behind and rejoicing in the glory of the Lord.

All Souls

Today is All Souls, the day after Halloween. We remember and pray for the souls of the faithful departed, especially those who fell away in this year.

Candles burn at the Basilica of Saint Bavo in Haarlem, at All Souls last year.

“Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”

St. John Chrysostom on Job 1:5, as cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1032

A cardinal bids his farewell

Yesterday, today and tomorrow, Godfried Cardinal Danneels, archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels and primate of the Belgian Church Province, bids his official farewell. At 76 years of age, it is time for him to retire. There is no successor yet, but the general expectation is that it won’t be long until Rome names one, and that that will coincide with the official acceptance of the cardinal’s resignation by the pope. Here is the homily he deliver today in Brussels.

It is a very eloquent piece of writing that even touches upon some of the points raised by Msgr. Marini on adoration and liturgy.

 “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven”, Ecclesiastes says (Ecl. 3,1). There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, a time to start and a time to go. Shepherds come and shepherds go. But there is one Shepherd who continues to take care of you: “the great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 13,20). And He, He remains: the Christ.

And that Shepherd should the be the focus of today. Jesus. With the author of the Letter to the Hebrews I say: “all you who are holy brothers and share the same heavenly call should turn your minds to Jesus, the apostle and the high priest of our profession of faith.”(Heb. 3,1)

Lift your eyes to Jesus

There is much that can frighten us when we look ahead: the crisis, the Church in the tempest, far fewer people and means and many who search and do not find the way. May I ask you, brothers and sisters, to keep looking towards Jesus? As the Gospel says: He sleeps in the bow of the ship of the Church in the tempest. And we keep saying: “’Master, do you not care? We are lost!” But we know the answer: “Why are you so frightened?” yes, why are we frightened? Fear is the only thing the Lord will blame us for. Not that we did not work enough, or planned or organised enough. But that we had no trust and no faith. That we did not look at Him; that we did not notice and believe that He was there among us. That He was there in the smallest and poorest among us and saw us with their eyes. He was also there in His Word that ceaselessly sounded in the liturgy. Clearly audible. But He is especially among us in the gift of His Body and His Blood. Yes, more, deeper and longer there than anywhere.

Lift yours eyes to Jesus, especially in Eucharistic adoration. I already asked you this at All Souls in 2006. I do it again today, the last time as archbishop. Grant me this.

Love the Church

Another thing: ‘Love the Church.’ I have served her wholeheartedly my entire life. A bishop is married to the Church. That is why he wears a ring. Love the Church! Certainly, she has her wrinkles, no wonder after 2,000 years. The Song of Songs already says: “I am black but lovely… Take no notice of my dark colouring, it is the sun that has burnt me… My mother’s sons made me look after the vineyards” (Songs 1,5-6) To see the Church as she really is – both divine and human – you need faith, that clear vision that can penetrate into the depths; that sees what can’t be seen. For the Church keeps within her an unfathomable mystery. She has something of the darkness and something of the light, sunlight and shadow both come over her. I like to repeat after Saint Augustine: “When I speak of the Church, I can’t stop.” And every time we discover a blemish in her, we must – after a moment of pain – be able to say: “but perhaps that spot on her skin is actually mine, it clings to my skin.” She is my mother and all mothers grow old. But precisely because of that do we appreciate our mother more: she is, after all, mine.

We received everything from the Church: the Scriptures and the sacraments, all the beauty of the liturgy, the tender pastoral care that many have received. We received Mary and all the saints and numerous brothers and sisters in the same faith. The strength of the Church lies in the liturgy. When the liturgy is celebrated beautifully and prayerfully, she creates an image of the Church as she really is: austere and grand at the same time, divine and human. The liturgy is the strongest form of evangelisation we have. No one escapes her mysterious charms. It could be that, in the times to come and the winter of indifference, the liturgy becomes the prime fireplace where we can warm ourselves on the Gospel.

Not of the world, but in the world

Something else. Many of our contemporaries barely know anything of the Gospel. Even its vocabulary is unfamiliar to them. The language is alien. We are almost back at the early days of the Church: a handful of people in a sea of unbelief and indifference. Perhaps more still an ocean of ignorance. What to do? Start to develop a healthy Christian sense of self-awareness. That is not pretense or pride: it is simply standing behind the truth. How can anyone follow us if we are mere shades? No one follows shadow images. To show and confess our identity – without issues and arrogance. We belong to Christ and the Gospel. To dare to be ourselves. It is allowed. It is even mandatory. Because “if the trumpet sounds a call which is unrecognisable, who is going to get ready for the attack?”(1 Cor. 14,8) St. Paul already wrote. Dare to be radically evangelical, and show it without issues.

But more is required. We must dare to take full part in the culture around us: in her science, her knowledge, her progress, the fabulous development of her technology, the modern thinking of modern man, in her art and culture, in the latest sensibilities. Certainly, we need the gift of discernment – not everything on the market is in good condition, after all. But how can one discern, when one does not know anything or wants to know anything?

Christians live on the edge of a knife: the are in the world, but do not belong to the world. That paradox cuts right through their hearts; it crucifies them. Just as it has also crucified Jesus, suspended high between heaven and earth. That is us as well: crucified, hanging between heaven and earth. But exactly there, on that intersection, the resurrection and the new life springs from. Should we start calling out loudly? Sometimes, yes: that is called speaking the language of the prophet. But Isaiah said of Jesus – the servant – “his voice is not heard in the street…” The most important thing has happened, in the silence of the cross. For the silence also speaks.

Speak clearly. But we must seek and find the gift not to sound arrogant, all-knowing or superior when we speak. Speak to serve, not to rule. Speak like Jesus spoke: “He felt sorry for them”. The lay there “like sheep without a shepherd.”(Matt. 9,36) Compassion is suffering with. To like to see people as they are, not as we would prefer them to be.

Perhaps also this: We Christians have a lot to do and we do a lot for the world: we fight for justice, solidarity, for food and for creation… But there is something unique to us: to bring forgiveness and reconciliation into the world. Here and elsewhere. To work towards reconciliation between all those colours, races and languages. In that respect our nation has become a laboratory. To be able to live together we need law and order, of course. But the problems won’t be solved without the service of reconciliation and forgiveness. He who gives lets another live indeed. He is as someone who gives birth, But he who for-gives is someone who raise a dead person.

Looking back at thirty years of shepherdhood among you, what can I say? I see what I have done and have not done. I know my successes and failures, the chances taken and missed, my talents and my flaws, my good and my bad. What to say? This. Maybe this: what the young priest from the novel by Georges Bernanos, ‘Journal d’un curé de campagne, whispered just before he died: “Tout est grâce”. All is grace… Yes. “All is grace”. Is it a coincidence that these were also the words of Saint Teresia of Lisieux? Tout est grâce. All is grace. Thank God with me.

+ Godfried Cardinal DANNEELS,
Archbishop of Mechlin-Brussels