Not dead but alive: All Souls and All Saints

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A Christian woman lights candles on her relative’s grave during the observance of All Souls’ Day in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 2 November 2019. On All Souls’ Day cemeteries across the country are crowded with people praying for their departed loved ones. Photo: CNS, Mohammad Ponir Hossain, Reuters

I love November, and not just because my students have gone off to do their exams. November has always had special meaning for me.

I’m writing this article in October, on the anniversary of the death of a lady who I’d known for many years. She made the most wonderful meringues I’ve ever eaten, and every time I make meringues now, I think of her.

Pope Francis walks through the Catacombs of Priscilla where he celebrated Mass in Rome on 2 November 2019, the feast of All Souls. Photo: CNS, Vatican Media

Does just thinking of people who have died make them alive again? This is a popular Hollywood trope, because Hollywood doesn’t deal very well with the idea of death.

But I don’t believe it. And the reason I don’t believe it is that these people are still alive.

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. – Heb. 12.1

And if you’re a Catholic, that’s actually what all of us believe. Remembering people doesn’t make the dead come back to life. The dead are already alive.

Our soul continues to live after the death of our body. The body is a beautiful thing, like an empty snail shell, and deserves to be treated with reverence after death. We will get it back one day.

A priest elevates the host as he celebrates an All Souls’ Day Mass on 2 November 2017. On 2 November, as a church, we observe All Souls’ Day, a day of prayer and remembrance for the souls of those who have died. Photo: CNS, Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic

But until then, our soul lives away from the body, either in Heaven with God, or in Purgatory being purified, or in hell where we will be separated from God for eternity.

There, I’ve said it. The h-word. The place where the door is closed from the inside.

I’ve met people – thankfully not many – who are consumed by hatred, blame, and anger. They slowly drive everyone around them away, so that they can be alone.

A woman in Zagreb, Croatia, lights a candle on 1 November 2019, All Saints’ Day. Photo: CNS, Antonio Bronic, Reuters

No one can live with them, and eventually they can’t live with anyone else. This is a sneak preview of hell on earth.

The Catholic Church is far bigger than people realise, because two-thirds of it is invisible to us. This is the Church in Heaven, and the Church in Purgatory. We can only see the Church on earth (a work in progress, and not always a pretty sight).

But in November, the other two-thirds press in on us, reminding us of their existence. The Church in heaven explodes on 1 November, the feast day of everyone who’s ever made it to heaven.

Saints Brigid, Clare, Joan of Arc, Lucy, Margaret, Martha, Mary Magdalene and Rita are depicted in a stained-glass window in a mausoleum. The feast of All Saints is celebrated on 1 November. Photo: CNS, Gregory A. Shemitz

And on 2 November, the Church in Purgatory comes knocking at the door, gently but persistently. I like to respond to that knock, and not in a horror-story way, because the Holy Souls need a lot of prayers and love.

They are also fantastic friends to have. While there’s no formal Church teaching on this, I can tell you that I’ve had many prayers answered when I’ve asked the Holy Souls to intercede for me.

A statue of Mary is seen amid the headstones in cemetery. We think of the dead as no longer alive, but for Christians they are more alive than ever before. If they are in Purgatory, they need our prayers and can pray for us. In the meantime, we can – and should – pray for the intentions of all the angels and saints of heaven. As Christians we belong to the only institution in the world that exists simultaneously in time and out of it and we are all connected in one great family in prayer and grace in Jesus. Photo: CNS, Gregory A. Shemitz

Pray for the dead. Have Masses said for them. It’s fine to ‘celebrate their life’ and think about them – but neither of these things really helps them if they’re in Purgatory.

This weekend I made meringues and ate them in Judith’s honour. But I also had Mass said for the repose of her soul, in case she hasn’t quite made it home yet. You can do both.

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