The Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day),
Cycle B
Wis 3:1-9; Ps 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6;Rom 5:5-11 or Rom 6:3-9; Jn 6:37-40

The Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed echoes a very important message: no human life is perfect, not even Christian life. And the Good News on this Commemoration of the Dead is that God in Jesus loves us, even as we are not perfect, and that the love of God does not abandon the souls of our departed brothers and sisters in the faith, even as they did not measure up to the ideals of Christian perfection. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in Me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were none, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (Jn 14:1-3). The redemptive and loving action of God in Jesus extends beyond death.

The Commemoration of the Dead is very much connected to two articles of faith in our Christian tradition: the Communion of Saints, and the Doctrine of Purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the belief in the Communion of Saints in the following words: “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and His saints is always [attentive] to our prayers’” (CCC 962).

On All Saints’ Day we honor all the saints, the blessed, the venerable and the holy who are with God in heaven. There they intercede for us, assisting us by their prayers. On All Souls’ Day we remember all the faithful departed – those who have died, and are being prepared for their entrance into eternal glory by being purified in purgatory.

Again, we read in the Catechism: “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 the joy of heaven…” (CCC 1030). The same Catechism describes purgatory as the “final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).

Some modern theologians suggest that purgatory may be an “instant” or progressive purification immediately after death varying in intensity from soul to soul, depending on the state of each individual.

The teaching on purgatory as the final purification is based on the practice of prayer for the dead. The Book of Maccabees describes how Judas, the military commander, discovered those of his men who had died in a particular battle had been wearing forbidden pagan amulets. His men at once “prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out” (2 Mc. 12: 42). Judas then “took up a collection from all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for the expiatory sacrifice” (2 Mc. 12: 43). The narrator continues, ”If he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Mc 12: 44-46).

The above verses clearly illustrate the existence of purgatory that, at the time of the Reformation, Protestants had to cut the Books of the Maccabees out of their Bibles in order to avoid accepting the doctrine. Not only can we show that prayer for the souls of the departed was practiced by the Jews at the time of the Maccabees, but also we can show it has been retained by Orthodox Jews today. They recite a prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish for eleven months after the death of a loved one, so that the loved one may be purified.

As Christians, we believe in the so-called Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Purgatory is not mentioned as one of the “last things,” because, strictly speaking, purgatory is a part of heaven. Purgatory is the “remedial class” for heaven-bound souls. Souls who go to purgatory are those who have been judged worthy of heaven, but not straight away. They still need some purification or purgation before they are ready for heaven because, according to Revelation 21:27, “nothing unclean shall enter it.” A very good illustration for this is the set-up in many churches in the west. Before we get to the main church, we have to go through the vestibule first. We are already in the church but not yet in the main church.

In James Boswell’s famous biography of Samuel Johnson, a great eighteenth century British author, a passage deals with purgatory and Masses for the dead. Boswell writes that the idea of purgatory made eminent sense to Johnson. His reasoning is that the vast majority of people who die should not be judged so bad as to deserve hell or so good as to deserve heaven. So, he concluded, there must be a kind of state where some sort of cleansing takes place before one finally enters heaven.

When asked about Masses for those in purgatory, Johnson replied that praying for them is as proper as praying for our brothers and sisters who are alive. Praying for the dead, like praying for the living, is a manifestation of love. St. Augustine noted: “If we had no care for the dead, we would not be in the habit of praying for them.” For us, believers, praying for a loved one is a way of bridging any distance, even death. In prayer we stand in God’s presence in the company of the people we love, even as these persons have gone before us.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends prayer for the dead in conjunction with the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice (CCC1032). Pope Leo XIII, in his 1902 encyclical Mirae caritatis, states: “The grace of mutual love among the living, strengthened and increased by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, flows, especially by virtue of the Sacrifice [of the Mass], to all who belong to the communion of saints.”

The Catechism also encourages “almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.” All these prayerful acts are to be conducted as matters of faith, and not as something magical. The greatest act is to offer Mass for the dead, because in this One Sacrifice, the merits of our Lord Jesus are applied to the dead. Hence, this reconciling offering of the Lord is the greatest and most perfect prayer we can offer our dead in their state of purification. Let us not forget to pray for our dearly departed, have Masses offered for them, visit their graves, and make daily sacrifices for them.

Our prayers and other sacrifices for the dead are capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective. The Church chooses the entire month of November for increased prayers on behalf oft he souls in purgatory. Our ideas about purgatory are usually frightening. This should not be the case. Fr. Leonard Foley, a Franciscan theologian, gives us a very good insight on purgatory in terms of God’s purifying act of love. He writes, “We must not make purgatory into a flaming concentration camp on the brink of hell – or even a hell for a short time.’ It is blasphemous to think of it as a place where a petty God exacts final punishment… Saint Catherine of Genoa, a mystic of the fifteenth century, wrote that the ‘fire’ of purgatory is God’s love ‘burning’ the soul so that, at last, the soul is wholly aflame. It is the pain of wanting to be made totally worthy of One who is seen as infinitely lovable, the pain of desire for union that is now absolutely assured, but not yet fully tasted.”

Purgatory may be a form of “blazing enlightenment” which penetrates and perfects our very being. God can anticipate and apply the merits of our present and future prayers for the dead in favor of the souls we pray for at the time of their purification. Purgatory is thus “the fringe of heaven, a state where heaven’s eternal light has a refining effect on the “holy souls” (not ‘poor souls’), who are held in the arms of Divine Mercy.”

Let us end with something to keep us reflecting. The Church has a rite declaring someone is in heaven. This is officially the meaning of the process of canonization. This is also in essence what we celebrate on All Saints’ Day. Also, the Church has a special day dedicated to those who are heaven-bound– all souls in purgatory, those in transit to heaven. November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, is especially dedicated to this. A good thing about our November 2 commemoration of the dead, like our November 1st commemoration of all the saints, is that we pray not only for our dead relatives and friends, but also for all the dead. We remember even those who have no one to pray for them.

Let us take note though that we do not have any rite or ceremony declaring someone is in hell. The Church can never and should never do this– not even for the most despicable person in the world. We leave it to the merciful prerogative of God. Thus, our prayers should be for all the dead – including those who may have lived despicable lives here on earth.

About Fr. Robert and his other reflections…