This series of teaching editorials explores death and dying and how the Church provides pastoral care for those facing death and for their families before and after they have died.
The season of autumn brings to mind festivals, celebrations and holidays. Growing up, I loved the smell of the leaves being raked as they were piled up on the lawn ready to be jumped in, the sound of the rustling of leaves on the road and sidewalk, and the welcome of cooler weather and the upcoming celebration of Thanksgiving. As I have grown older, those experiences stay with me, but their meaning has changed from a child-like innocence of fun to a more mature understanding of what autumn brings: nature going dormant in order to bring new life in the spring.
Although holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving are a part of our secular culture, the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls Day are part of our religious culture.
Pope Boniface IV formally established All Saints Day in 609 AD. Later, Pope Gregory III established November 1 as a day celebrated at the Vatican that was dedicated to the saints and their relics. Later, Pope Gregory IV extended this celebration to the whole Church and decreed that it be a holy day of obligation.
On the Feast of All Saints, we think of our loved ones in heaven, “all saints,” recognized or not. We remember the saints recognized by the Church, those who have been given the sacred title of “saint,” those who are blessed. We remember them as models to live by, as people who struggled in their lives, as men, women and children who have been touched by the love of Jesus Christ and who found faith in His teachings. The lives of the saints include strengths and weaknesses, virtues and failings – all of which allow us to reflect on how ordinary they are. Yet, they inspire us, encourage us, teach us and guide us to seek lives of holiness and grace, even in the midst of our own sinfulness. The Feast of All Saints helps us to reflect on these qualities and reminds us that we are all “saints in the making.”
On the Feast of All Souls, we remember those who have died and “gone before us marked with the sign of faith.” This is not a holy day of obligation, though many churches hold prayer services to honor those who have died in the past year. On this feast of All Souls, we continue to pray for our loved ones who have died, those holy souls in purgatory, those who have not yet reached heaven.
The teaching of purgatory is not always well understood. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (#1030). It notes, “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (#1031). Sanctification involves suffering (Rom. 5:3–5), and purgatory is the final stage of sanctification that some of us need to undergo before we enter heaven.
All Souls Day also is celebrated in Mexican culture through the Day of the Dead, a holiday that has gained popularity in the United States and Latin America. It is celebrated joyfully and colorfully, with special foods and customs that extend from October 31 through November 2. It is customary to visit cemeteries and create altars to remember the dead.
As we reflect on these two special celebrations of our church, we remember that our Lord, Jesus, was able to destroy death and bring about salvation. The Paschal Mystery is present to each one of us in our encounters with the saints and with those who have gone before us. We experience the Paschal Mystery as we die and rise each day through our own weakness and our own strengths. We have the saints to walk the journey with us. We have our family and friends who have died that we might pray to or ask for their intercession. We have our Lord, Jesus, who is within us and loves us so that upon our death, we will rise to new life with Him.
Within this month of harvest and the dying of natural life in the trees, plants and flowers, we are reminded of the cycle of death and resurrection. We look to the awakening of new life in the earth next spring and within ourselves, as we await the joy of Easter and the Resurrection of the dead.
Cathy Reynolds is the director of Campus Ministry for St. Xavier High School