November is, and has traditionally been, the month where the Church calls upon us to remember those who have died and to do so through our prayers. As the year – both calendar and liturgical – winds down, it seems appropriate to ask for God’s love and mercy upon those who have “gone before us marked with the sign of faith,” to use a phrase from the Roman Canon of the Mass.
We begin the month of November with two holy days that help us to focus our attention on our beloved dead: the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls). The first recognizes and asks for the prayers of all who now wear, in the words that St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, “the crown of righteousness.” The second centers our prayer on those who have completed their earthly journey, yet are presently undergoing “the final purification of the elect” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1031).
The first group, the Church Triumphant, is both an example for us of the Christian life and a source of help in living that life. From the simple asking of St. Anthony to help us find our keys to the profound supplication of calling upon St. Peregrine or St. Jude on behalf of a loved one suffering from cancer, the saints in Heaven remind us that we are bound to them through our common baptism in Christ.
Yet, the month of November is not for them, but for those who we remember on All Souls Day. These are the congregants in the Church Suffering, those who in the words of the Catechism “are indeed assured of their eternal salvation” but must first be cleaned in the pre-heavenly state that we commonly call Purgatory.
The Catechism reminds us that: “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.”
This reminder is especially important in an age where funeral Masses can easily fall prey to our desire to assure the grieving family and friends that their loved one is “no longer suffering” and “in a better place.” Our kindness toward those left behind can unwittingly mask an unintended lack of charity for the deceased who is most probably still in need of our prayers. We can be certain that the last thing that a celebrant of an ecclesiastical funeral (the official name for a funeral Mass) intends through his thoughtful comments is to convince the congregation that prayers on behalf of the deceased are unnecessary.
Without the infallible assurance given through the papal declaration of canonization, there is no way that we can be guaranteed that our loved ones are presently in Heaven, and so to pray on their behalf is the greatest gift that we can give them. As the renowned Father of the Church St. John Chrysostom tells us, “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
Yet since we all hope that our beloved dead have already been admitted to the beatific vision, we might wonder whether or not our prayers for them as a waste of time. A priest friend once addressed that issue in a conversation with my wife Ann.
He told her that he prayed daily for the repose of the soul of our son Kevin even though he was as certain as he could be that Kevin was in Heaven. He reasoned that the infinite love of God would never let a prayer go to waste, and that a prayer for Kevin, if unneeded by him, could easily be transferred to another soul still in Purgatory.
Considering the nature of the Communion of Saints as a family united with Jesus through the Holy Spirit under the Father, this approach makes total sense. If family members share with each other in this life, then why wouldn’t they continue to do so in the next?
So let’s not waste this important last month of the liturgical year by forgetting our responsibility to our family members who need our prayers, and, while we’re at it, let’s also include in our intentions those who may be forgotten and un-prayed for, those who are the least of our sisters and brothers in Purgatory. I can’t imagine that they will forget us when our time comes, and I’m pretty certain that they will go out of their way to return the favor.