The Month of Remembrance
"For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day."
- John 6:39-40
November - The Month of Remembrance

The whole month of November is an interesting time of prayer in the Church, filled with the feast days of great saints, but also subtle portents of eternity. It begins with All Saints or All Hallow's Eve (aka Halloween) which is the last day of October. While some see ghosts and goblins, we see saints.

All Hallow's is followed by November 2nd, All Souls' Day, or (more officially) the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. All Souls' isn't a Holy Day of Obligation, but it is a very beautiful part of our ancient Catholic tradition. St. Odilo in 998 A.D. established November 2nd as the date on which the monks at his monastery at Cluny would hold commemorations for their deceased members, and from Cluny, this date eventually won acceptance as "the" date for All Souls in the universal Church.

On All Souls', the faithful are encouraged to visit cemeteries and to pray for the dead. Many Catholics take the day to put flowers on the tombstones of their loved ones. We go to cemeteries not to summon forth zombies, but in a sense to "commune" with the dead through our prayers, and appreciate that while they may be dead to us physically, we are connected to them through our faith in Christ Jesus and through His Church.

And let us not forget that for us here in America, it is within November where falls Thanksgiving, a day for reflecting upon family and our ancestors, and upon the settlement of our nation, but also reflecting upon God's providence. In the northern hemisphere, the bounty is being harvested at this time of year, so November becomes a natural time for us to reflect upon the final judgment, when the Lord of the Harvest will return to separate the wheat from the weeds. Thus, during November, we might listen to the ancient hymn Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) and in our prayer, turn more to the contemplation of the final things.

Another great feast of November is Christ the King, which is the last Sunday of Ordinary Time. This, too, is a reminder of the end of days and the second coming of Christ in glory, as are the first weeks of Advent that begin in December.

Praying for the Dead

One of the least visited collections of the Vatican Museum is the Paleo-Christian section, but that section is most intriguing, for one sees how our ancestors in the Faith carved into the funerary sarcophagi their understanding of Catholicism and of prayer for the dead. And then, there are the catacombs just outside of Rome, roughly 375 miles tunneled through the stone (put in one line and stretched out, it would be the distance from Atlanta to Memphis). Likely no one has seen all the twists and turns of the Roman catacombs, but just descending into the first and earliest sections gives one another glimpse into how our Catholic ancestors understood death – all throughout the Christian catacombs one sees prayers for the dead.

Today, praying for the dead is something too many of us have stopped doing. Upon death, the Church believes that nothing but perfection may enter Heaven, and none of us is perfect. Therefore, we need the purging, the cleansing of our souls, before we can enter the Perpetual Light. Properly speaking, a Funeral Mass is not supposed to be a canonization, wherein we presume the deceased individual is in heaven. Rather a Funeral Mass is more traditionally a Requiem Mass, because we're supposed to be praying for God's mercy, and for our loved one's rest and peace. How tragic that the poor souls in Purgatory are left with no one to pray for them because we presume they are already in Heaven.

The Church has prayed for our deceased loved ones from the beginning. It is actually a practice we inherited from the Jewish people. While the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, other Jewish sects, including the Pharisees, did. Their prayers offered for the dead included pleas for mercy for the soul of their deceased loved one and that the Lord allow their loved one to rest in peace awaiting the resurrection. Today, it is difficult to "prove" this from scripture if we are using a Protestant or Jewish Bible, for the principle reference of the practice is found in II Maccabees, a book which Protestants and Jews no longer consider canonical.

But Catholics do consider II Maccabees a canonical book in our Old Testament. In the story, Judas Maccabeus has sin offerings made on behalf of his fallen soldiers, whom he discovered were wearing pagan amulets beneath their tunics when they were killed. He clearly does this with hope in God's mercy in the afterlife towards these comrades. We can find additional references to praying for the dead in Matthew 12:31-32, where our Lord teaches the possibility of sins being forgiven both "in this world" and "in the world to come." And St. Paul clearly prays for the soul of Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy, 1:16-18; 4:19.

Part of the Christian Tradition

Given the canonical dispute over II Maccabees, it is far easier to demonstrate that praying for the dead has been a part of the Catholic life from the beginning if we look at Tradition, and in particular at funeral customs and the Holy Liturgy. The ancient Christian tombs of the catacombs have funeral inscriptions that are clearly prayers for the dead, and many of these prayers closely resemble the words of our Requiem Mass chants. In the earliest days of the Church, the names of the dead were entered onto diptychs (hinged two-leaf tablets) which probably were put upon the altar during the Sacrifice of the Mass and read out loud. Even today, in the oldest of our Eucharistic prayers (Eucharist Prayer I), the priest pauses at the place where those names were likely read in ancient days (Remember, Lord, those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, especially those for whom we now pray…).

What is more, the writings of the early Church Fathers demonstrate that praying for the dead is as old as the Church. Tertullian and Saint Basil the Great indicated that praying for the dead was already a time-honored tradition known to them from the earliest days of the apostles. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, writing around 350 A.D., wrote of praying for the dead, believing that the petitions were very beneficial to the souls of those who had fallen asleep. One great example is that of Saint Augustine and Saint Monica. For those of us familiar with the story, we know that Augustine's salvation was due in part to the persistent prayer of his mother, Monica. On her deathbed, Monica admonished her son for frivolously thinking of where she would be buried and instead asked her son to remember her at the altar of God (that is at the Mass). His filial love did not allow him to presume that his mother was in Heaven, and he prayed that God would show his mother mercy. So, just as Augustine's mother had prayed for his salvation, he later would pray for hers (and today, they are both recognized as saints in the Church).

But if we pray for the dead, and believe there is the possibility of post-death purification, then this leads the Church to try to explain how this happens. The Church does so through the doctrine of "Purgatory."

On Purgation

One of the most radical cultural changes that accompanied the advent of the Protestant Reformation (now almost five hundred years old) was the loss of the tradition of praying for the dead. While Martin Luther did not dissuade his new church from praying for the dead, he did reject yearly celebrations of Requiem Masses as "the devil's annual fair." And while the Anglican Book of Common Prayer characteristically approached the subject of praying for the dead with some reluctant ambivalence, it went on to condemn the teaching of Purgatory as "vainly invented" and "repugnant to the Word of God." Regardless, the Church's tradition of praying for the dead and the Church's teaching on Purgatory are linked. What can we then say about this much maligned doctrine?

The most important thing we can say about the Church's doctrine of purification in the life to come (or Purgatory) is that it is a teaching of hope, and an answer to prayers that we might be made pure. At death, our particular judgment by God determines whether we will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell. If Hell, all is said and done. If Heaven, we cannot enter until we have been purged of all imperfection. This belief that whatever is not of God that remains within us can be purged and purified after death is based on our call to be perfect (which the Lord has called us to) and yet also reflects the reality that few of us ever reach this perfection prior to our death. This purifying journey towards full beatitude is what the Church means when she speaks of the doctrine of Purgatory.

The Church has consistently referred to this as a time of suffering and of temporal punishment (as opposed to eternal punishment). Moreover, the analogy of refining gold is also one that is sometimes applied, when the individual is cleansed and every trace of attachment to evil is eliminated. The sins are already forgiven, but in God's perfect justice, there nevertheless remain some consequences of those sins. And yet it is critical to stress that this is not a state of hopelessness nor should it rightly be thought of as a time of physical pain (for these are souls, remember). Rather this is a spiritual preparation for eternity, a time of contrition for past sins, a time to see the consequences of our sins, and a time to let go of all that binds us to old vices, as we are drawn nearer to the holiness of God.

This doctrine (like the Church's teachings on the Communion of the Saints) also reminds us that we Catholics who are alive and well today remain connected to (indeed bound to) our loved ones who have gone before us, and that our prayers for them are efficacious. To pray for the dead is to recognize they were not perfect, but in our charity, we offer prayers on their behalf, and hope that the Lord will accept them as if they were a perfect sacrifice. To pray for the dead is to recognize that God's mercy is not limited by only what our own physical sight can see and measure, but that His mercy extends into eternity. To pray for the dead is to appreciate that the power of God's mercy is not bound by time. Lastly, we should like to add for our more modern minds, that it may be helpful to look upon the doctrine of Purgatory as more a process than a place, and yet it is a process that most of the saints have gone through, and that most all of us will go through if we are very, very blessed.

On Indulgences

Linked to the notion of praying for the dead is the notion of the Church's granting indulgences, but the very word "indulgence" conjures up such misconceptions that most Catholics all but run from the topic in polite company these days. Simply put, an indulgence is a remission of temporal punishment that the Church grants (usually in response to some act of charity, like praying the rosary) and that is generally applied to the "suffering souls." Now, there is no denying that there has been confusion on the subject in the past. Biblically speaking, Saint Paul, in his letter to the Colossians 1:24, reminds us that our sufferings for the sake of others can complete what is lacking in our Lord's afflictions for the sake of the Church. Elsewhere St. Paul, writing in I Corinthians 12:12-26, reminds us that the Church is one, and if one suffers, we all suffer. Indulgences are something like our sharing in the suffering of our loved ones.

Nevertheless, it is important to stress that indulgences cannot buy forgiveness (for anyone who is in process of purgation is already forgiven), nor can they deliver anyone from Hell (for people in the process of purgation are not going to Hell). Nor should we try to apply our notions of "days" and "years" to Purgatory, which remains outside of our own physical constraints of space and time. Furthermore, indulgences are neither bought nor sold. While it is true that indulgences were in the past linked to almsgiving for some charities or for the construction of great churches, this was never simply and crudely "selling" an indulgence, but rather linking it to a good work of charity.

Mass Intentions

By tradition, most Masses offered around the world are offered specifically in memory of a loved one and as a prayer to be offered for the repose of the soul of the individual. We might all have particular intentions for the Mass, but there is one unique intention for the Mass (which is generally made known to the people of God). This practice of applying the grace of the Holy Sacrifice of a Mass for the repose of the soul again goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Tertullian (writing before 216 A.D.) mentioned that Christians offered sacrifices for the dead on the anniversary of their loved one's death, and that they prayed for the souls of their deceased spouses, offering the Mass on the anniversary of that spouse's death. Just a note: the Mass is even more efficacious for a person's soul when that person is still living, so you don't have to wait for the person to die to have a Mass said for him/her!

Text taken from Our Lady of the Mountains, Jasper, GA