The second day of November is a busy one for parish priests. On that day, we celebrate three Masses for the dead. These liturgies follow directly on the previous day’s joyous celebration of the saints in glory. The living—those souls who are truly living because they have entered heaven, the Land of the Living—and the dead—those who died in the state of grace yet need purification before they may enter eternal life—are joined to us in worship and prayer. The altar is the crossroads between life, death, and eternal life. On the altar, on consecutive days in November, we offer the Holy Sacrifice in honor of the saints and in supplication for those being made fit for heaven.
The supernatural mission of the Church is to unite man to God, here and hereafter, and the priest is one of God’s key instruments in bringing about this blessed union. On All Souls’ Day, I am very conscious of this mission. The Church’s solicitude for her children does not stop at the grave. We accompany our deceased faithful across the doorway of death, and we pray to God for their quick release from the purifying fire of purgatory into the joy of salvation.
The stained-glass windows in my church are beautiful reminders of the invisible world we all hope to see firsthand. The photos in my study of deceased friends are reminders not only of past blessings received through them, but also of my duty not to forget them in my prayers and Masses. On November 2, past, present, and future come together, especially at the altar. All of our lives are in the hands of a merciful God. The joy of heaven is assured for the holy souls in purgatory, yet the experience of that joy must wait. We can hasten that moment through our appeals to God, in prayer and mortification, on behalf of those whom we no longer see.
Is the Church’s preoccupation with the souls of the dead morbid? Does the insistence on praying for the dead reflect a refusal to accept the reality of death? Quite the contrary. The dead are dead to this world, but they live to God. Our prayers reflect the communion of love that death does not destroy. We remember those whom God placed into our lives here below for a time and who are united with us still, even after they have left our sight. This fact, taught to us by our faith, compels us to act. We pray, and we rejoice at the goodness of God—he who allows us to help those we love who are beyond our earthly vision yet still are seen by God.
Black vestments are traditional on All Souls’ Day. They denote the tragic nature of death, which tears soul from body and brings that soul before God for its particular judgment. Our spirits must be serious about our duty to pray for the dead. Forgetfulness of the holy souls can be a problem for us: out of sight, out of mind. On the feast of All Souls, the Church tells us, “Remember!” In that act of remembering, we also must prepare for our own departure from this world, at a time of God’s choosing. Death is familiar to us, and we must not hide from it nor push it from our thoughts. Rather, we must turn to the one who conquered death by his own death. We must ask him to grant eternal life to all those who have gone before us, in the hope of our own entrance, one day, into the Land of the Living.
Fr. Gerald E. Murray is pastor of St. Vincent De Paul Parish in New York.