Monday, November 2, 2009

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. on All Souls' Day


(HT: Carl Olson at Ignatius Scoop) You can read Fr. Schall's outstanding essay here. Here are some excerpts:
Most of my relatives are buried in the Catholic Cemetery just at the edge of Pocahontas, a small county seat in rural northwest Iowa. My mother's grandparents, my grandparents on both sides of my family, my mother herself, and, I believe, all but one of her thirteen brothers and sisters are buried in this neat cemetery. Two of my father's brothers are also there; his other brother is a few miles east in the cemetery in Clare. Two of my father's four sisters are buried there, as well as numerous cousins and their families, though many are scattered in later years. My own father is buried in the cemetery in Santa Clara, and my brother in the cemetery in Spokane.

On the Second of November, many families, especially in small towns, decorate the graves with flowers, have Masses or prayers said for their deceased relatives, and in general remember them. In modern cities, I think, we are in danger of losing contact with the dead in our families and in our culture. Families move. Cremation changes things. There are so many of us. We do not have to be superstitious, of course. We believe in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. Our contact with cemeteries is designed to recall our very mortality, but also to remind us of what we hold about death and its place in our lives.

As we get older, we find that many more of our immediate family are dead than alive. We find friends gone. Such is our lot. To wish it otherwise, while not a totally unhealthy exercise, needs to be understood clearly. It is given unto every man once to die, thence the judgment, as it says in the Book of Maccabees. Death has become a hospital, not a home, thing. The dead body is a source of parts, to be somehow passed on to others. We think almost exclusively of the living, not of the dead....

In the Breviary, for the Feast of All Souls, the Church includes a very powerful passage from St. Ambrose about the death of his brother, Satyrus. This is a particularly significant reflection on death. Ambrose tells us that Christ did not need to die if he did not want to. This position does not mean that Christ was a sort of suicide. It means that, as God, nothing could happen to Him without His own will, which acted in free obedience to the Father. Thus the obvious question arises about why the Father might require this obedience?

To this question Ambrose adds that Christ could have found no better means to save us than by dying. We can and do try to imagine a better way. We come up with alternatives. Much of ancient and modern thought is an attempt to find a suitable alternative to explain why the human condition is as it is. This same thought is quite disconcerted with the notion that the Christian explication might, after all, be true. The connection is between Christ's death and the saving of mankind. The former was necessary if the latter were to be accomplished, while protecting both divine and human liberty in the events leading to a proper salvation.

But why does mankind need saving? Why cannot it save itself? Ambrose continues, "death was not part of nature; it became part of nature." This sentence must be examined. Clearly, it states that a finite being like man, the mortal, is naturally slated to die. This view, that death is not part of nature, goes against all our thinking about what finite creature like ourselves are. But such a mere mortal, born to die, never existed in fact.

From the beginning of God's intention in creation, the man who did exist was destined to a supernatural end, to participation in the inner life of God. This was something beyond what it is to be a human being as such. This possibility was due to something over and above what was naturally due to man. What we know as "original sin", that necessary but perplexing doctrine, is the reason why the initial relation of man to his end did not come about. This fall, as we call it, meant that death subsequently became part of nature, in Ambrose's words.

Read the whole thing here.

1 comment:

Alexander R Pruss said...

I know it's an old post, but thanks for having posted it. Last night I read Arthur C. Clarke's story "Death and the Senator<" and somehow the post and Fr. Schall's words went together particularly well.