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“We believe in the life eternal. We believe that the souls of all those who die in the grace of Christ—whether they must still be purified in purgatory, or whether from the moment they leave their bodies Jesus takes them to paradise as He did for the Good Thief—are the People of God in the eternity beyond death, which will be finally conquered on the day of the Resurrection when these souls will be reunited with their bodies.” ~Credo of the People of God, Pope St. Paul VI, June 30, 1968

The tradition of using black vestments for the celebration of Mass on All Souls Day is enjoying a modest revival in the Catholic Church. The liturgical reforms introduced following the Second Vatican Council included the innovation of using white vestments at funeral Masses and other Masses for the dead. This change was somewhat jarring for many in the pews, as white vestments are used on the feast days of saints who did not die as martyrs (for martyrs, the priest wears red vestments). 

White signifies the blessed state of those who now see “God [who] is light, and in [whom] there is no darkness” (1 John 1:5). The beatific vision of God transforms the forgiven sinner and brings about his union with God, filling his soul with divine light. The halo circling the heads of saints in sacred art represents the same truth as the white Mass vestments: Our brothers and sisters in Christ, who lived lives of true holiness, have been lifted up out of the darkness of sin and death that overshadows our world. They have reached the fulfillment promised to those who hear that sought-after invitation: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). The saints, joined to Christ, are filled with his light, which shines forth from them to guide and inspire us on our pilgrim way.

What about those who, though believers, were not outstanding in holiness at the moment of death (that is, most of us)? The Church teaches that those who have died in a state of imperfect friendship with God are not yet ready to enter into the joy of heaven. They need to undergo a passive purification of their venial sins and of the debt of reparation owed to God for their infidelities to him. Purgatory is where that takes place, where the wedding garment (Matt. 22:12) is put on heavenward pilgrims seeking entry into the celestial wedding banquet. That spotless wedding garment of grace signifies the marriage of the saved with God in Christ.

It is only fitting that Christians mourn the death of our loved ones by recognizing the stark brutality of their separation from us and their entry into a fate known only to God. Black vestments symbolize our sorrow in the face of death. Their use at Mass is a reminder not to skip over the necessary grieving at the loss of our loved ones. Sorrow and hope coexist easily in the Christian dispensation. Grief is assuaged by trusting in God’s goodness while fulfilling our duty to pray for one another, now and when we are separated by death.

The Good Thief was singular in learning the result of his particular judgment before he died. The rest of us learn that upon dying. Are we ready like the thief at Calvary to enter Paradise? The Church errs on the side of charitable caution and says: “Probably not.” The just judge of the living and the dead listens to our entreaties for those who are, as it were, getting fitted for the wedding garment in purgatory.

Praying for all the dead on November 2 is a communal act of supernatural charity by the Church Militant for the Church Suffering, praying in union with the Church Triumphant for all those being made ready for heaven. The ancient practice of using black vestments teaches us that death is sorrowful, and that mourning is not a mistaken emotional indulgence, but rather a deeply human expression of love for those who have gone before us. Our Lord wept at the news of the death of Lazarus. We join that weeping on All Souls Day as we remember all those who have died, offering prayers that they may hear the invitation to come and inherit the kingdom prepared for them, entering into the eternal light of God’s love.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is pastor of Holy Family Church in New York.

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Photo by Yelkrokoyade via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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