Nov. 1, 2013
Many of us remember growing up referring to the month of November as the “month of All Souls.” By this we mean that it is a time of the year when we spend special time praying for our loved ones who have died, and even praying for the deceased who are strangers to us, but nevertheless in need of our prayers. It is also a month when we make special effort to visit the graves of our loved ones, praying for them there as they await the resurrection of the body at the end of time.

These are by no means just nostalgic and “old fashioned” notions that no longer have meaning or relevance for us today. They remain very much a part of our Catholic ethos, and prayers for the dead are very much an essential aspect of our Catholic doctrine and practice. It is a great act of charity and one of the seven spiritual works of mercy. Remember those?

Many of us have the experience of being at a funeral for a friend or loved one and having it proclaimed that he or she is now in heaven with God. This is done, of course, to bring comfort and consolation to ourselves and to the deceased’s family, and certainly the promise of eternal life is at the heart of the Good News Jesus came to bring to us. But this does not exactly capture the fullness of Catholic belief about what happens when we die.  

I have worked for years on the cause for beatification and canonization of the first bishop of my former diocese, Venerable Frederic Baraga.  This whole effort is aimed at having the Church universal, through the ministry of the Holy Father, proclaim that he is a saint. That simply means that he is in heaven, having received the reward of a saintly life on earth. It takes a lot to make such a declaration happen, and we must not anticipate the judgment of the Church on these matters, both with regard to official causes for canonization, and for our loved ones who have died.

On All Saints Day (Nov. 1), we recognize and honor all those deceased persons who are now in heaven with God, both the famous (those on the Church’s official roster) and those who are lesser known, which may include our loved ones.  We honor their holy lives, seek to follow their example, and count on their prayers of intercession for us.
But the next day, Nov. 2, we celebrate All Souls Day.  On this day we remember all the dead, including our loved ones, who have passed from this life but who still await the fullness of eternal life as they are purified and cleansed in preparation for the fullness of God’s presence. Yes, I am talking about purgatory.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it this way: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter to joy of heaven.”  (CCC, #1030) It would be a very worthwhile exercise to review for yourselves the teaching of the Church on what happens to us when we die, found in numbers 1020 through 1050 in the Catechism.  

And so we pray for our beloved dead, and we can truly assist them with our prayers and sacrifices. This is what it means to be part of the “communion of saints,” the members of the Church on earth united to the members of the Church in heaven and to those members in purgatory.

“From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.  The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.” (CCC, #1032)
The Catechism also quotes the great St. John Chrysostom in that same paragraph:  “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.”

In an effort to bring consolation to ourselves, we sometimes proclaim our loved ones to already be in heaven.  In that case we do not think they need our prayers. Perhaps many are in heaven.  But perhaps many are waiting for us to show them this final act of kindness. If they can benefit from our prayers, which is what the Church teaches, it is the greatest act of love to pray and sacrifice for them, especially by having Masses offered for them.

When a loved one dies, many things are left unsaid, and many missed acts of kindness are deeply regretted. I think of all the things I wish I had said to my father, or the acts of kindness I wish I had done for him. But I can still show my love for him now and share my communion with him by praying for him, which I often do. I also used to visit his grave regularly in Michigan. I know he prays for me.

So, in this month of All Souls let us recapture this beautiful and important part of our faith and practice.  Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May they rest in peace!