By ARCHBISHOP GREGORY J. HARTMAYER, OFM Conv., Commentary | Published November 13, 2020 | En Español
During November, for many Catholic families, it is customary to remember in some spiritual way those who have died. This includes our private prayer … the lighting of candles … the offering of a Mass on the anniversary of the death. From before the time of Jesus, Scripture tells us that it is good and holy to pray for the dead–that they may be freed from their sins.
Certainly, none of us would like to think of our loved ones as needing our prayers. We do not want to, or necessarily enjoy thinking about the fact that someone we know and love very much who has died may need prayers or be in need of purification prior to being welcomed into the Kingdom of God. However, the reality is, we do not know.
We do not know the inner workings or the inner life of a person or the life of their soul at the moment of death. We pray always that each of us will be prepared for death, but nonetheless, as we know from Scripture, death can come “like a thief in the night.” And so, as Catholics, we promise to pray for those who have died, and we continue to pray for the repose of their souls. Those who have died may still need purification from sin. They are the beneficiaries of our daily prayers and every time that Mass is celebrated, we offer prayers for the dead.
Certainly, we know that death is real. Every one of us has been affected by it. But it is difficult to accept death as the necessary participation in the rhythm of life. Death occurs to every living thing. Everything that has life will go through a cycle of life and come to an end. The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is “an appointed time for everything under the heavens” … there is a time to be born and there is a time to die.
Because death is a human experience, there are emotions and feelings that tug at the heart. When we are physically separated from another person by death, there is a feeling of loss and pain because of the emotional attachment and the investment that has been shared between us. After a person’s death, there is emptiness and the void that we feel within ourselves can never be filled in quite the same way. Because of a loved one’s death, our life will never be the same.
Nevertheless, our commemoration of All Souls reminds us that our faith teaches there is much more to understanding death than simply the passing away of a person. During the funeral rite, we pray, “Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended, and the sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.”
Our entire Christian faith is centered on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The reason we meet on a Sunday and celebrate the Eucharist every week is because Jesus rose from the dead, early in the morning on the first day of the week. And so, every time we come together as a community of faith to celebrate the Sunday liturgy, we are acknowledging our faith in the resurrection.
Yes, the crucifix has a central place in our church, and we sign ourselves with the Sign of the Cross to remind ourselves that it was because of Jesus’ death that we can once again be received into the heavenly kingdom.
But the real focus of the church is the altar. It is upon this altar that the bread and wine become the body and the blood of Christ…the body and blood of the risen Christ. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead triumphed over death and he promised us that we can now share in the eternal life of heaven.
Although we remain confident in these promises, many of us may commemorate All Souls with a sense of regret or a heavy heart or the echoing of “what ifs” when we think of someone in our life who has died. It may have been a parent, a spouse, a child or a friend. What if I had told him more often how much I loved him? If only I had said I was sorry. If only I had been more patient. If only I had visited her more in the hospital or the nursing home. If only … if only … if only.
For those who wish to lay their regrets to rest, praying for the dead can be an opportunity to strengthen our relationships with those who have gone before us to God. It can be a time of prayer for them and to ask for forgiveness and to realize our union with them in God—in Christ and in the Spirit.
We cannot turn the clock of time back and cannot change what we said or what we failed to say, but we can experience this remembering for the dead as an opportunity for reconciliation and pray for those with whom issues have been unresolved. In prayer, we can lay those regrets to rest. Then, fresh from this experience, we might better approach each new day as an opportunity to express love and to set aside anger in order to be reconciled and to let others know how much they mean to us. Each day can be a chance to visit and care for another, to learn patience, to recognize and rid ourselves of prejudices that separate us from one another. These and so many other words and works will help us to be less encumbered by regret when we next celebrate this feast together.
I ask that you remember and pray for the priests and bishops who have served the Archdiocese of Atlanta and have died. We remember our bishops, priests and deacons who have ministered to us and who have gone before us. We pray for those priests who came to this archdiocese from other lands and those buried elsewhere. May we never forget those who evangelized the Catholic faith and have laid a foundation, which made it possible for us to become stronger in our faith.
We remember and pray for our deacons, priests and bishops who strayed from their solemn promises, caused scandal and contributed to those who left the Catholic faith because of their poor choices and bad behavior.
Joined to the merits of the saints, our prayer comes to the aid of those who await the beatific vision. We pray that the Lord will grant them eternal rest.
May the souls of all who have gone through the passage of death to life rest in peace and may we, who will one day follow them, know similar life, peace and God’s mercy.