The Feast of All Souls
Rev. Stephen Murphy, O.M.I
The Feast of All Souls is devoted to prayer for the dead. On this festival the entire living Church offers up suffrages for the benefit of those afflicted in purgatory. Christians as a body, lifting up their hands, make a commemoration of all the faithful departed, begging God to grant peace and rest to the spirits of their friends.
That we may prepare ourselves for a fruitful participation in this solemnity, let us review in our minds three things connected with the practice of praying for the dead:
I. The prevalence of this practice among Christians.
II. Our obligation to pray for the souls.
III. The relative excellence of various devotions to be practiced.
I. There can be question to-day of the universal existence amongst Catholics of devotions for the relief of the dead. Every altar is draped with mourning on this Feast of All Souls. For thirty successive days we shall hear the solemn strains of the requiem in all our religious edifices. Is not this the practice existing among us, recommended so highly by the Church at the time of the so-called Reformation, when the Council of Trent declared that the souls detained in purgatory, “are aided by the suffrages of the faithful and especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar?” Is not this the practice St. Augustine speaks of eleven centuries prior to the Reformation? St. Augustine, indeed, using language we ourselves often employ, says, “It is not to be doubted that the dead are assisted by the prayers of Holy Church, by the Saving Sacrifice and by the alms which are offered up for their souls, that they may be more mercifully dealt with by the Lord than their sins have merited.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem, fifty years earlier, describes how the anxiety of living Christians to succor the suffering souls, finds expression in public prayers of the Church dating from Apostolic times. “We pray,” he says, referring to the memento of the Mass, “for the holy Fathers and Bishops who are dead; and in short for all those who have departed this life in our Communion; believing that the souls of those for whom prayers are offered receive very great relief while this holy and tremendous victim lies upon the altar.” Nor were the customs and ideas different among Christians when they interred their dead in the Catacombs. Pilgrims to the Eternal City, who visit the subterranean tombs of the first three centuries, may still read the inscriptions engraved upon them. The inscriptions often contain words, requesting prayers for the departed. We find an identical belief and practice described amongst the Jews of the second century before Christ. We read (II. Mach. xii) that certain followers of Judas Machabee were slain while fighting to uphold Jewish national ideals against the Gentile incursions. Upon the bodies of the slain were found relics of pagan worship. It was evident that, by concealing on their persons small objects forbidden by Divine Law, those killed in battle had been guilty of sin. They had offended God, but not necessarily by a grievous offense. Their comrades in arms besought the Almighty that their sins might be forgotten, thus professing the Jewish belief in the efficacy of prayers for the dead. Judas himself took up a collection and sent a large sum to Jerusalem to have sacrifices offered for them, “thinking well and religiously concerning the Resurrection.” “It is, therefore,” says the sacred writer, “a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” (II. Mach. xii, 46).
My dear brethren, on this Feast of All Souls and during the month of November, when we gather about the graves of those who are gone and pour out our supplications before God in their behalf, it will be helpful for us to bear in mind that we engage in a pious practice not only common to the Church of our day, but esteemed by Christians of every age. It will strengthen our devotion to bear in mind that Christianity has always looked upon the practice as an essential element of her religious worship revealed and sanctioned by God among the Jews of old, and as such, held in the highest honor in their midst. During these coming days, when we kneel in prayer or perform good works, let our endeavors be unceasing to promote the glory of God’s Kingdom, by our interest and sympathy toward the suffering souls.
II. It is not a matter of free choice, but a strict duty to pray for the dead. We must consider that all our brethren in Christ, the living and dying as well as the dead, are entitle to the assistance of our prayers in their urgent need. Chis commands us to love our enemies. He commands us to pray for them for this reason that, being, like ourselves, children of the Heavenly Father, they are destined to be our companions in happiness and glory.
Now if we are bound to relieve by prayer the necessities of our enemies, with how much more earnestness ought we to appeal to the infinite mercy in behalf of our friends, and particularly those friends of our who sleep in the dreariness and sadness of the tomb.
But I will ask, are we alive to the necessities of our departed friends? In the midst of what calamities are we to aid the dead by the power of our intercessions? Let us try to enlighten our minds by imagining ourselves in their situation, and contrasting their lot with our own.
“Man born of woman,” says Holy Job, “living a short time is filled with many miseries” (Job xiv, I). From the cradle to the grave we meet with suffering. In this life the Hand of God is heavy upon us for our correction, in our childhood to preserve us from the fault of our parents, in later years to save us from the malediction of our own misdeeds. Yet the severest trials of earth, whether the extreme of bodily suffering or the excess of mental agony, even the bitter anguish of dying, are but a prelude to the suffering and anguish we are bound to experience after the particular judgment when we view all our iniquities before us.
After the particular judgment, when our souls sink into the depths of purgatory, all our iniquities, our failings and our crimes, become visible to our conscience and our eyes. We see the venial faults of our lifetime, at least those minor transgressions that have not been expiated by the works of charity and penance. Such faults may be legion in number and multiplied above the hairs of our heads, since even the just man falls frequently into sin. They are the thousand faults and imperfections of human frailty, lacking either gravity of matter or deliberate willfulness. Vain frivolities and idle words, feelings of hatred or evil imaginations half-consciously entertained, petty displays of ill-tempter, indifference in sundry trifling details to the glory of God or the rights of others – these are some examples of venial offenses, no one of which is of serious moment in itself.
No number of them can exclude us forever from heaven, though this latter fact is due to that merciful provision of the divine goodness, whereby we are cleansed from all spot and stain in purifying flames before coming into the presence of Him Whose “Eyes are too pure to behold evil” (Hab. I, 13). I have said that no venial offense is a serious matter in itself, but can it be claimed that even one venial offense is to be lightly regarded, when the accumulated guilt of all of them calls for an expiation and atonement that sorely tries the soul by the intensity of suffering and the duration?
And what further patience and endurance must be displayed in repairing the sadder results of mortal sins! The soul after death, it is true, reviewing its earthly career, continually blesses those happy tears whose sorrow and humility merited the compassion of the infinite mercy. It possesses a calm resignation in the midst of suffering. It possesses an absolute assurance, that the crimes of the flesh and the eternal punishment due to them have we obtained pardon and remission at the hands of God. Its calmness and patience, in the midst of the severest trials remain undisturbed by the temporal punishment due to the offenses of a lifetime. It is not disturbed by the unbroken loneliness of its abode of darkness, nor by the fretful bondage of irritating chain, nor the distressing affliction of a restless and penetrating fire.
In the midst of this distress and calamity, so patiently endured, must we come to the assistance of the dead. Our departed friends, detained in purgatory, long to be with God, in whom alone they can find contentment, peace and rest. It is our duty to hasten their deliverance by the relief we afford them.
III. In aiding the souls, it is the part of wisdom to adopt means best suited to our own efforts, and most likely to afford abundant relief. To every prayer that is fervent and persevering, Christ has promised an infallible answer. And prayer is within the reach of the humblest. Let us, the, be untiring in our petitions before God, that He may show mercy to our departed friends. It is possible for everyone to engage in good works, while to every good work there is attached a blessing. But is there not an additional blessing vouchsafed to ourselves and to the dead, when we offer for the good of their souls the satisfaction contained in our sufferings, our almsgiving and other pious practices? And why not chose by preference those prayers and good works enriched by indulgences applicable to the souls in purgatory? Fulfilling the conditions laid down by the Holy Father, we are able to offer to the Divine Justice, for the remission of temporal pain of purgatory, the superabundant atonement and satisfactions of Christ and His Saints.
But the Mass surpasses in excellence all other devout practices, because in the mass we have Christ Himself making intercession for the dead. The power of this intercession is infinite in value, amply sufficient for effacing all penalties due to sin. But the value of each Mass actually applied, depends upon the degree of charity in the souls of the dead. It depends also on the devotion we ourselves manifest in offering up the Holy Sacrifice. If our personal devotion seems devoid of fervor, let us endeavor during this month of November to remedy our coldness and lack of piety by joining ourselves with our fellow Christians the world over who engage in good works and offer up the Sacrifice of Christ for the assistance of the dead.
In conclusion, let us recall once again that this Feast of All Souls is a solemn commemoration of all the faithful departed. One this festival, in union with the entire living Church, in union with our Savior offering Himself upon our altars, let us make intercession before God, not only in behalf of our near relatives and dear departed friends, but for all the souls afflicted in purgatory. Thus, we shall display a spirit of charity more pleasing in the sight of heaven, because it embraces all the suffering children of the Heavenly Father. Thus, we shall merit more abundant blessing for those whose loss we mourn. We shall merit for our own souls after death the signal favor and mercy of God, in ourselves obtaining an early release from the sorrows of purgatory.