A Shepherd's Message - Oct. 28, 2014

October 28, 2014

All Saints Day and All Souls Day fall on a weekend this year, Nov. 1 and 2. The days are an excellent time for us to remember that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses — the saints — who stand before the Lord and already share in the vision of Beauty, the face of the Trinity, and who live to praise and to offer their encouragement to us.

The first persons beyond the ever Virgin Mary to be honored in the ancient Church were the martyrs. They witnessed to Jesus even to the shedding of their blood and were mentioned in the Liturgy as victorious conquerors over evil and death because the Lord had given them courage to live their faith publicly, even amidst threats. Later, the Church added “Confessors,” heroes of the faith who had not died as martyrs, and other disciples great and small who were acclaimed by the Christian community as worthy of emulation. The first celebrations of a Feast Day for saints is a celebration of martyrs right after Pentecost. In the Western Church, a celebration of saints became common in late Fall as the season grew cold. The warmth of the saints became a sign of encouragement for all believers to persevere in their Christian commitment. “All Hallows” day became very general throughout the Western Church by the turn of the first millennium and has become an important marker for a better understanding of the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the communion of saints,” a line that first refers to the communion of us all, living and dead, in the holy mysteries of the Eucharist and then to the persons themselves in that sharing, the whole Body of Christ with Christ, its Head, living and deceased. Three groups are traditionally marked by this communion: The Church Triumphant (saints), The Church Militant (those on earth still in “gestation” towards glory), and The Church Suffering (the faithful departed still in need of purification before final glory). All Saints Day focuses our attention on the Church Triumphant. Beyond officially canonized saints the group includes innumerable members, some our own immediate ancestors in the Faith, who share in Christ’s victory over death. “They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” And “He” goes to always make intercession for us. All Saints Day is now occasionally superseded by its Vigil, Halloween, All Hallows Eve, by the hype and commercialization attendant upon its observance. Within our Catholic Faith, we should be prudent and moderate in celebrating Halloween with our children, especially in expenses involved since such excess tends to diminish the meaning of the saints and their care and concern for us, especially the poor and those on the margins of society. The saints are some of the best examples of “poor in spirit.” Even more so, I would add that some of the “adult” celebrations of Halloween are even worse! Here too great discernment is called for in marking this occasion. The real emphasis is the Mass on All Saints Day and the encouragement to let our children and young people appreciate the lives of their patron saints or the saints near and dear to one’s particular culture or ethnic group.

All Souls Day, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, has been celebrated the day after All Saints Day for more than a thousand years, a celebration begun by the monks at Cluny in France and eventually observed everywhere in the Western Church. From the time of the Apostolic Church and in the earliest Eucharistic Prayers of which we have a record, prayers for the faithful departed have always been included in our Liturgy and devotions. All Souls Day remembers the Souls in purgatory and we pray that the Lord will grant them the fullness of the heavenly kingdom of which they are assured; till then our prayers aid them in the purifying action that is the state of being called “Purgatory” in our theological tradition. We are always encouraged to pray for the dead, to have celebrations of the Eucharist for them, particularly for our deceased family, relatives and friends. All Souls Day has also become a time for Christians to visit the burial places of their deceased relatives and friends, to mark graves with flowers and vigil lights, observances that are signs of our care for the earthly remains of those we have loved and continue to respect. As with any Christian observance there have grown up some customs associated with All Souls Day (Day of the Dead) that are more superstitious or ghoulish than prayerful remembrances. Such matters must be patiently corrected even as the Church continues to pray for the dead and to ask the faithful to keep alive the beautiful aspects of remembering the faithful departed.

All Saints Day and All Souls Day are a time for us to examine what are called the Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. These realities are not ghoulish but sober invitations to look to Jesus Christ, the “pioneer and perfector of our Faith,” who has conquered death and invites us to live both now and in our death in his saving resurrection. It is also his invitation to take responsibility for our actions now since those actions do have eternal consequences. Our culture sometimes wants to “package” death as a sheer consumer item and make it “efficient.” We need to resist this evasion of reality and the cosmetic denial of the truth in this approach. But that is another column. †