A family prepares to attend Mass in St. Mary Mausoleum, Hamilton, on All Souls Day in this 2016 Monitor file photo. Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., offers a reflection on remembering all the faithfully departed during November, the month of All Souls. Joe Moore photo
A family prepares to attend Mass in St. Mary Mausoleum, Hamilton, on All Souls Day in this 2016 Monitor file photo. Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., offers a reflection on remembering all the faithfully departed during November, the month of All Souls. Joe Moore photo
Beginning with the Feast of All Saints (November 1) and the Commemoration of All Souls (November 2), the entire month of November has long been dedicated to the faithful departed, “those who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace (Eucharistic Prayer 1).”  The “sign of faith” is that “indelible mark” that the Catholic Church teaches comes with Baptism.  St. Teresa of Calcutta once reflected “during this whole month we give them extra love and care by praying to them and for them.”

In the Catholic Church, this liturgical tradition has its origin in the prayers and remembrances of Catholic communities in the early Middle Ages (6th - 10th centuries). The idea, however, is more ancient, found in the Old Testament: “it is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins (2 Maccabees 12: 46).”

The Church celebrates the “saints” whom it believes are the “Church Triumphant,” dwelling with God in eternity.  The “Church Penitent” are the souls of the baptized who have died, awaiting their passage into eternal life in heaven in purgatory. The “Church Militant” are those within the Catholic Church anticipating their death on earth, their judgment before God and their transition to eternity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Churchteaches that:

Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ. The New Testament speaks of judgment primarily in its aspect of the final encounter with Christ in his second coming, but also repeatedly affirms that each will be rewarded immediately after death in accordance with his works and faith. The parable of the poor man Lazarus and the words of Christ on the Cross to the good thief, as well as other New Testament texts speak of a final destiny of the soul — a destiny which can be different for some and for others (CCC, 1021).

Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately ... (CCC, 1022).

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).  

This “state” is called “purgatory” and the “souls in purgatory” are aided by the prayers of the living.  Pope St. John Paul II reminded us that praying for the souls in purgatory “is the highest act of supernatural charity.”

Celebrating the Feast of All Saints is a recognition of the “communion of saints” in the eternal presence of God with whom we enjoy a continuing relationship in virtue of our common Baptism.  Catholics believe that the saints can and do intercede for us before God.  Praying for the holy souls in purgatory also expresses our continuing relationship with them because of the Baptism we share “with those who have gone before us with the sign of faith,” that they “they may be loosed from their sins.”  Although November is designated as the “month of the holy souls in purgatory,” praying for them throughout the year is “a holy and wholesome thought,” indeed a responsibility for all Catholics.

Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen encouraged us, “as we enter heaven, we will see them, so many of them, coming toward us and thanking us.  We will ask who they are, and they will say ‘a poor soul you prayed for in purgatory’.”

Saints of God, come to their aid.  Come to meet them, Angels of the Lord.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May they rest in peace.  May the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.