In the first allocution, I talked about some modern approaches to eschatology (the last things.) Sometimes these writers have played down the importance of individual eschatology. I suggested that communal eschatology – the general judgement and the general resurrection – are closely intertwined with our individual eschatology and that I would therefore address the topic of our own four last things without feeling guilty about doing so.
Although not a defined doctrine of the Church, the particular judgement is considered to be sententia proxima fidei, that is, a doctrine regarded by theologians generally as a truth of the faith even though it has not yet been finally promulgated by the Church. The particular judgement is especially implied in the teaching of Pope Benedict XII in Benedictus Deus where he affirmed that the saints experience the beatific vision immediately after death, those who die in mortal sin immediately descend to hell, and those in venial sin immediately begin their purification in purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church adds weight to the common teaching of theologians when it affirms:
Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification or immediately, – or immediate and everlasting damnation. (1022)
The great Dominican theologian, Garrigou-Lagrange puts it like this:
The analogy between divine judgment and that of human justice brings with it resemblances, but also differences. Judgment before a human tribunal involves three steps: examination of the case, pronouncement of the sentence, and the execution of that sentence.
In the divine judgment the examination of the case is instantaneous, because it needs neither the testimony of witnesses, for or against, nor the least discussion. God knows by immediate intuition, and at the moment of separation the soul knows itself without medium. It is enlightened, decisively and inevitably, on all its merits and demerits. It sees its state without possibility of error, sees all that it has thought, desired, said, and done, both in good and in evil. It sees all the good it has omitted. Memory and conscience penetrate its entire moral and spiritual life, even to the minutest details. Only then can it see clearly all that was involved in its particular vocation, for instance, that of a mother, of a father, of an apostle. (Garrigou-Lagrange, R. Life Everlasting. Part 2.10.)
St Alphonsus relates the following story:
The thought of judgement inspired the venerable Juvenal Ancina, Priest of het Oratory, and afterwards Bishop of Saluzzo, with the determination to leave the world. Hearing the Dies Irae sung, and considering the terror of the soul when presented before Jesus Christ, her Judge, he took, and afterwards executed, the resolution of giving himself entirely to God.
The Dies Irae can indeed serve us well as a meditation on the particular judgement. It is a significant part of the traditional Requiem Mass. Nowadays we struggle to convince people that the Requiem Mass is not simply a celebration of the life of the deceased person but also a sacrifice offered for the forgiveness of their sins. The traditional texts also encourage us to meditate upon the last things. I will take just a few verses to illustrate how we can prepare for the judgement that we will inevitably undergo the moment that we depart this life.
Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
quidquid latet apparebit:
nil inultum remanebit.
Therefore when the judge shall sit, whatever is hidden will be made plain: nothing will remain unrequited.
Perhaps in the past we have concealed a sin in confession. Perhaps we have grown in virtue and now realise that things which we excused ourselves in the past were in fact mortal sins. It is a good practice for us occasionally to make a general confession – not scrupulously or too often, but on the occasion of a change in our lives, or on a special retreat when we are determined to give ourselves more completely in the service of God, we can choose a suitable time, or make an appointment, to make a general confession of all the major sins and faults of our life. This need not take long: when people tell me the old joke (as they so often do) “Oh Father you can’t hear my confession, it would take all day”, I always reply “No, the confession can be quite brief, it is the penance that will take the rest of the week.” In fact, we will never do sufficient penance for our sins, but the more that we manage to do in this life, the less onerous will be our judgement.
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
quem patronum rogaturus?
cum vix iustus sit securus.
What shall I, a wretched man, say then? What patron shall I call upon when even the just is scarcely safe?
What shall I say then? This question should prompt us to say all that we need to say now, in this life, while there is still time for repentance and conversion of our lives. Then, it will be too late. Now, God gives us time. Our time is so precious that we should not waste a moment of it.
Whether at prayer, at work or at recreation, every moment of our lives should be lived according to God’s will, offered for Him and not for our own comfort. The time that we spend in recreation from our labours should be seen always as an act of charity to others, considering their needs, not our own, even if we have to spend time on our own relaxing in some activity that makes us better able to serve God and show charity to others.
Consider the repentant thief. (Lk 19.40-43) He had but a short time to hang upon the cross next to Jesus before Our Lord, tortured more severely than Him, gave up the ghost. In a few moments he expressed his faith in the Lord’s power to save and was granted by Our Lord that he would be in paradise that very day. His supremely profitable use of a few moments should prompt us to the prayer:
Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis:
gere curam mei finis.
I pray, suppliant and prostrate, with heart ground down as ashes: have care for my end.
Contrition is the tearing of our heart in shreds at the outrage that we have done to Our most loving Lord, at the part that we have played by our sins in gouging out the Holy Wounds which we venerate. This may come from a fear of hell or, as is more likely today when people forget the reality of hell, a sheer disgust at our weakness and at having let ourselves down.
This is what we call imperfect contrition. In God’s infinite mercy, when allied with sacramental confession, it is enough. God accepts even this imperfect contrition as availing for the complete forgiveness of our sins and the opening of the gates of heaven.
Much better is that perfect contrition which comes from the love of God. Meditation on the passion of Christ and upon His most holy wounds is a sure way to excite in ourselves that perfect contrition which mourns because we have offended God. Pondering the sufferings of Christ helps us in our weakness to see concretely and in physical terms what our sins, even the least venial sin, does to the incarnate body of the living God come down to visit us.
We will shortly be celebrating the commemoration of All the Souls of the Faithful Departed. We should also try to visit a cemetery during the first eight days of November to gain the plenary indulgence as well as making the act of charity of praying for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed, especially those for whom nobody else is praying. These pious exercises, as well as attending Requiem Masses and arranging for Masses to be said for the dead, are primarily for the benefit of the holy souls.
However they also benefit us, not only generally as devout practices of Catholics, but also directly because of the prayers that are part of the traditional round of the Churches liturgy. A final prayer that is often said also in the Novus Ordo is a salutary reminder to us of how we should be affected whenever we pray for those who have died:
Grant, O God that while we lament the departure of this your servant, we may always remember that we are most certainly to follow him. Give us the grace to prepare for that last hour by a good life, that we may not be surprised by a sudden and unprovided death but be ever watching, that when you call, we may enter into eternal glory. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the Lord indeed give us that grace to live a good life of prayer, penance and works of mercy. And may he judge us mercifully when we appear before Him.