For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die. – Ecclesiastes 3:1-2
All Saints Day I (1911) – Wassily Kandinsky
Time is precious, yet it often seems to slip through our fingers almost without our noticing it. For from the moment that we draw our first breath, we begin a journey that will one day lead to the inevitable. Life is inextricably linked to death, and just as we have all been born, one day we will all die. We are dust, and to dust we shall return (cf. Gen 3:19).
Death, however, is not something that we need fear. It is a natural part of life that, seen through the eyes of faith, is actually a reason for joy and hope. In Jesus’ final words to His disciples, He said, “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. … I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (Jn 16:22, 28). On her deathbed, St. Thérèse of Lisieux echoed these words, saying, “I am not dying. I am entering eternal life.”1
The acceptance of death as an extension of life is reflected in the traditions of countries such as Mexico, where the dead are honoured in festive celebrations. On the eve of the Day of the Dead (November 1st and 2nd), processions carrying cardboard coffins lead the people to cemeteries where candlelight vigils take place. In Patzcuaro, the lake is filled with the lit-up boats of fishermen. There are carnivals and parades, colourful costumes, skeletons and devil masks, candles, dancing, and marigolds.
Oaxaca is famous for its Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) – sweet bread covered with sugar and baked in the shape of skulls, skeletons, or bones. Families clean the graves and decorate them with gifts. They picnic at the gravesides, feasting on pan de muerto and their relative’s favourite foods. They toast them with cervesa (beer) and tequila. It is a way for families to reconnect with their ancestors, to remember and celebrate the lives of those who have passed away.
Preparations for the Day of the Dead – Cuernavaca, Mexico
The Western Catholic Church honours those members of the Body of Christ who are already with God in heaven on the Solemnity of All Saints (November 1st). The following day (November 2nd) we celebrate the Solemnity of All Souls. We pray for all of the faithful departed, especially our family and friends whose souls are still being purified in Purgatory.2 But our prayers are not just limited to these two liturgical celebrations. The Church has set aside the entire month of November to pray for the deceased. A book with the names of those who are to be remembered is often placed near the altar in our churches.
The practice of praying for the dead is rooted in Scripture. The Israelites prayed and made atonement for the dead in the hope that they might be delivered from their sin (see 2 Macc 12:42-45). In a similar way, from its earliest days, the Church has always prayed for those who have gone before us. It wasn’t until the year 998, however, that this tradition was formally adopted. According to legend, “a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was cast by a storm on a desolate island. A hermit living there told him that amid the rocks was a chasm communicating with purgatory, from which perpetually rose the groans of tortured souls. The hermit also claimed he had heard the demons complaining of the efficacy of the prayers of the faithful, and especially the monks of Cluny, in rescuing their victims. Upon returning home, the pilgrim hastened to inform the abbot of Cluny [St. Odilo], who then set 2 November as a day of intercession on the part of his community for all the souls in Purgatory.”3
An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory c. 1610 – Lodovico Carracci
Today, praying for the dead is a Christian obligation. Although we all hope to be united with God one day, we know that there is no guarantee that we will get into heaven. And once we have died, there is nothing that we can do to help ourselves. For this reason, praying for the dead is one of the greatest acts of charity that Christians can perform. We not only remember our dead, but we “apply our efforts, through prayer, almsgiving, and the Mass, to their release from Purgatory.”4
The Catholic belief in Purgatory as a doctrine of faith was formulated at the Councils of Florence and Trent.5 In his encyclical letter On Preparation for the Holy Year, Pope Benedict XIV wrote, “The faithful must be fully aware that sin and its eternal punishment are remitted by the Sacrament of Penance if one makes proper use of it; however the entire temporal punishment is very seldom taken away. This must be removed either by satisfactory works in this life or by the fire of Purgatory after death.”6 This belief is a source of great consolation to us, as the Church confirms: “Those who die in the state of grace and friendship with God but who are not fully purified are assured of their eternal salvation. They must undergo a purification to attain the holiness needed to enter heaven. This process is called Purgatory. We pray for those in Purgatory, that they may soon be with God in heaven.”7 Recognizing the importance of our prayers, the Church has attached two plenary indulgences to All Souls’ Day: one for visiting a church and another for visiting a cemetery.8
Filippino families visiting their dead in Manila
The Catechism reminds us that … “it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.”9 But they are not the only ones who benefit from our prayers. As we pray for the souls of the faithful departed, we also benefit as we draw closer to God. Thus in this communion of the three states of the Church – those of us here on earth, those who have died and are being purified, and those who are already in glory contemplating God – there is a constant exchange of spiritual goods and the union of the Church in the Spirit is strengthened.11 “In this Communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always attentive to our prayers for one another here and for the souls of the faithful departed.”10 “Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.”12
Just as the faithful departed need our prayers, so too are we in great need of the prayers of the saints. On his deathbed, St. Dominic comforted his brothers, saying, “Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life.”13 There are countless stories of miracles attributed to the intercession of the saints. They are our friends in heaven, uniquely able to understand our weaknesses and frailties. They are always ready to offer up prayers on our behalf. We are grateful for all of the graces that they have obtained for us through their intercession.
It is a great source of comfort to know that although those who have died can no longer be with us physically, there is much that we can still do to help them (and ourselves) through our penance and prayers. Especially during the month of November, let us be united with the Church as we pray, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
– Sharon van der Sloot
Prayer to St. Jude for All Souls
You give me hope, St. Jude,
in the face of loss and sorrow.
I pray that you will guide all souls
to the light of Christ. May the hope
that you offer be a source of comfort
to all those who grieve. For in that hope and
through our faith, we experience God’s tender mercy,
and trust His promise of eternal life.
Stay by my side, St. Jude, so that
I may always rely on your care for me. Amen.14
1 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), 162.
2 In the Eastern Orthodox Church, several days throughout the year are dedicated to the dead. Most of these are on Saturdays, the day that Jesus rested in the tomb. They are referred to as Soul Saturdays.
3 Peter Damiani, Life of St. Odilo. Quoted in “All Souls’ Day,” Catholic Online; available from http://www.catholic.org/saints/allsouls/; Internet; accessed 15 October 2013.
4 Scott P. Richert, “All Souls Day,” About.com Catholicism; available from catholicism.about.com; Internet; accessed 14 October 2013.
5 The Council of Florence took place between 1438-45 and the Council of Trent between 1545-63.
6 Pope Benedict XIV, Apostolica Constitutio (On Preparation for the Holy Year), 26 June 1749, 13. Available from https://www.ewtn.com/library/ENCYC/B14APOST.HTM; Internet; accessed 19 October 2013.
7 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, 161.
8 You can obtain a plenary indulgence by visiting a cemetery between November 1–8. A partial indulgence can be obtained for visiting a cemetery on any day of the year. We can seek indulgences for ourselves, or on behalf of a person who has already died.
9 CCC, 958.
10 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, 160-161.
11 Cf. CCC, 957.
12 Ibid., 958.
13 Ibid., 956.
14 Saint Jude Blog, “All Souls Day Memorial Wall,” The National Shrine of St. Jude; available from http://blog.shrineofstjude.org/post/all-souls-day-memorial-wall/; Internet; accessed 18 October 2013.