Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
At the beginning of October we celebrated the Feast of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. She died 112 years ago on Sept. 30 as a relatively unknown 24-year-old Carmelite sister in France. She lived for nine years in the cloister but spent her final years in bed sick with tuberculosis. On her death bed she confessed that her work wasn’t yet finished. She felt there was still so much more to do and so she told her sisters, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.”
This coming weekend we will be thinking a lot about our deceased sisters and brothers and praying with them and for them in our liturgical celebrations. Sunday, Nov. 1, is the feast of All Saints and Monday, Nov. 2, is the commemoration of All Souls. Every Sunday when we recite the Creed we profess our belief in the “communion of saints.” For us life is not limited to our time here on earth. We know in faith that it is everlasting, beginning with our conception and continuing forever in the embrace of our heavenly father. St. Theresa had a deep faith in the gift of everlasting life. She understood that a good and gracious God, in spite of her own human frailty, wanted to raise her up from the limitations that this life necessarily imposes upon us and allow her to be with him forever.
Mindful of this fundamental teaching of our Catholic faith, we Catholics this weekend on All Saints Day will pray to those holy ones who are now with God to assist us in our earthly struggles. On All Souls Day we shall pray for our deceased brothers and sisters who are not yet in the Lord’s company but “standing in line,” as it were, in a place the church traditionally calls “purgatory,” until they are cleansed of sinfulness and ready to be with God forever. I once heard purgatory described years ago this way: After the long journey on earth, where things get sometimes rather messy, we shall all need a cleanup job before entering the Lord’s presence, the same as would occur before being welcomed into the company of any dignitary!
Some folks question our practice of praying for the dead, even with the dead. Jesus once said, “Everyone who sees the son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.” This certainly strengthens our confidence in the mercy and graciousness of a loving God. When we pray for our deceased brothers and sisters, we are not asking God to have a change of heart about anything they have ever done. We are simply doing our own small part to entrust them to God’s loving care, with the knowledge that such a merciful father in heaven, as Jesus tells us, has no desire that any one of us should lose his way on our journey of faith. We unite our prayers with theirs for the well-being of all our sisters and brothers in the communion of saints, especially those here on earth and the deceased who are not yet with God in heaven.
In many countries this is a weekend when people flock to cemeteries to honor the dead. Here in the United States that custom seems to be more prevalent on Memorial Day rather than in early November. We shall have a Mass at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portland Nov. 6, at 2 p.m. It will be a time for those whose relatives and friends have died this past year to gather for the Eucharist and to entrust them once again to the Lord. As we honor the dead and commemorate their lives and good works here on earth, we should be mindful of why we do so. From my own personal observation I would say that more and more of our people simply forget their deceased relatives and friends. They have not truly embraced or even understood our church’s teaching about the communion of saints. Hence they have no hope that the faithful departed, like St. Theresa, are spending their heaven doing good for us here on earth.
Why do we honor the dead? First and foremost, because we believe firmly in the immortal nature of every human being. God created us body and soul. After death we are not simply souls. Were that the case, we would be radically different from what we have been here on earth. No, we remain body and soul, but the life of the body after death and resurrection, as we learned from the stories about the risen Jesus, is radically different. Those who have died and gone before us are still united with us as members of the one great human family. Secondly, we also believe in the dignity of every human person. Because the person remains truly alive with God after death here on this earth, Christians have observed practices throughout the ages that manifest their understanding and appreciation of this human dignity by the way we honor and reverence the human remains of the deceased. The early Christians embraced burial practices that reflected their deep belief in the dignity of their deceased companions as well as the eventual resurrection of all the dead at the last judgment.
We have witnessed great changes in attitudes and practices over recent decades with respect to the burial of the dead, not all of which are consistent with Christian belief. In my next column I shall address this matter. But for now, after sharing treats with the ghosts and goblins on Halloween, let’s spend the next two days mindful of all our beloved dead. May life everlasting with God be theirs — and may they too spend their heaven doing good for us on earth.