Life After Death

Gospel Commentary for All Souls

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By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap

ROME, OCT. 31, 2008 ( The feast of All Saints’ Day and the commemoration of All the Faithful Departed have something in common, and for this reason, have been placed one after the other. Both celebrations speak to us of what’s beyond. If we didn’t believe in a life after death, it would not be worth it to celebrate the feast of the saints, and even less, to visit the cemetery. Who would we go to visit or why would we light a candle or bring a flower?

Thus, everything in this day invites us to a wise reflection: «Teach us to count our days,» says a Psalm, «that we may gain wisdom of heart.» «We live like tree leaves in autumn» (G. Ungaretti). The tree in spring blooms again, but with other leaves; the world will continue after us, but with other inhabitants. Leaves don’t have a second life; they disintegrate where they fall. Does the same happen to us? That’s where the analogy ends. Jesus promised: «I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in, even if he dies, will live.» This is the great challenge of faith, not just for Christians, but also for Jews and Muslims, for everyone who believes in a personal God.

Those who have seen the movie «Doctor Zhivago» will remember the famous song from Lara, the sound track. The Italian version says: «I don’t know what it is, but there is a place from which we will never return …» The song points to the meaning of the famous novel by Pasternak on which the movie is based: Two lovers find each other, seek each other, but they are those whom destiny (we find ourselves in the tumultuous epoch of the Bolshevik Revolution) cruelly separates, until the final scene when their paths cross again, but without recognizing one another.

Every time I hear the notes of this song, my faith brings me almost to shout out inside me: Yes, there is a place from where we will never return and from where we will not want to return. Jesus has gone to prepare it for us, he has opened life for us with his resurrection and he has indicated the path to follow him with the passage of the beatitudes. A place where time will stop to make way for eternity; where love will be full and total. Not just the love of God and for God but also all honest and holy love lived on earth.

Faith doesn’t free believers from the anguish of having to die, but it soothes us with hope. A preface of the Mass (for All Souls’ Day) says: «If the certainty of having to die saddens us, the hope of future immortality consoles us.» In this sense, there is a moving testimony that also comes from Russia. In 1972, in a clandestine magazine a prayer was published that had been found in the jacket pocket of a soldier, Aleksander Zacepa, composed just before the World War II battle in which he would die.It says:

Hear me, oh God! In my lifetime, I have not spoken with you even once, but today I have the desire to celebrate. Since I was little, they have always told me that you don’t exist. And I, like an idiot, believed it.

I have never contemplated your works, but tonight I have seen from the crater of a grenade the sky full of stars, and I have been fascinated by their splendor. In that instant I have understood how terrible is the deception. I don’t know, oh God, if you will give me your hand, but I say to you that you understand me …

Is it not strange that in the middle of a frightful hell, light has appeared to me, and I have discovered you?

I have nothing more to tell you. I feel happy, because I have known you. At midnight, we have to attack, but I am not afraid. You see us.

They have given the signal. I have to go. How good it was to be with you! I want to tell you, and you know, that the battle will be difficult: Perhaps this night, I will go to knock on your door. And if up to now, I have not been your friend, when I go, will you allow me to enter?

But, what’s happening to me? I cry? My God, look at what has happened to me. Only now, I have begun to see with clarity. My God, I go. It will be difficult to return. How strange, now, death does not make me afraid.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher.

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