Many times during the course of the year, I visit the graves of my parents. I bring flowers or small plants to place there in loving memory as I pray for them. Birthdays, anniversaries and holidays bring me there, as well as other days with no particular significance.
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As memories flood my mind, I sometimes smile, and other times, shed a few tears. Their graves remind me how much I miss them and love them still. In faith, I know they are not “there” but their remains rest in that sacred place. I always feel a real “communion” with them.
The Catholic Church dedicates the entire month of November to the “holy souls in Purgatory,” those “who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.” The Church introduces the month’s remembrance with the Solemn Feast of All Saints, November 1, a holy day of obligation. Each Sunday and holy day, Catholics profess that they “believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” That profession captures what the whole month of November presents for the Church’s prayer and reflection.
Saints are not simply those canonized by a formal Church process – although the term certainly includes them – but “saints” are those who, because of their goodness, dedication and witness to the Lord Jesus Christ during their earthly life, now rest fully united with him and their fellow saints, in eternity. They “behold the face of God.” That is what we believe and profess. We remain attached to them and their memory, and they to us “in communion.” We honor them and they intercede for us, their loved ones, with God.
November 2 is known as “All Souls Day” and begins the month-long prayerful remembrance of those souls who, while having led a good life striving for holiness here on earth, continue on their journey to heaven, making amends for sins and failures and purging their souls from past attachments to sin. They will be fully united to God and all the heavenly saints once they pass through this “time” of purgation (Purgatory). We who remain behind in this world can help hasten their journey through our prayers. The Scriptures encourage us to do this in the Second Book of Maccabees where the sacred author writes, “It is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins (2 Maccabees 12:45-46).” Our remembrance of the “faithful departed” is “one of the most beautiful expressions of the Catholic spirit (Pope St. John XXIII).” We are “in communion” with the holy souls in Purgatory, too.
As I began these reflections, I mentioned visiting my parents’ graves. As I look at their tombstone, I not only consider their memory but I also see a sobering reminder of my own mortality … underneath their names and dates of birth and death is also etched my own name and birthdate. I do not know when other numbers will appear there, but I know they will. And when they do and when I take my place in Purgatory, I hope someone will pray for me.
On All Saints Day, as you attend Mass, pray to God with gratitude for these heroes of our faith and celebrate their Gospel lives. On All Souls Day and throughout the rest of November, pray for those who are no longer with us here but are making their way to heavenly glory, those whose names and lives we know and those who are known only to the God, who is the goal of their journey through Purgatory. November is a special time for them in the Church year. One day, it will be a special time for us, too.
“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”