All Souls Day
While I was sitting here curmudgeonly lamenting the rise to prominence of Halloween over a good, Christian holy day like All Souls Day (full disclosure: I know “curmudgeonly” is an adjective, not an adverb), I began to wonder whether the fate of Purgatory was somehow a consequence of the importance being given to this pagan feast of Halloween.
Once upon a time, for those of us who lived in seminaries, the coming of All Souls Day meant “get ready to serve three Masses,” back-to-back, same celebrant and same altar. This feast was one of the two days of the year that a priest was allowed to celebrate three Masses (Christmas was the other day). We could imagine the hopefulness of the souls in Purgatory that this could be the day that they’d make it over the threshold into heaven.
Or maybe the “holy souls” would be helped by our “exequies” rite which was celebrated at our Community Mass on November 2nd. We brought out what looked to us like an ironing board, covered it with a floor-length black cloth, and then carried out the ritual that today we call the “Final Commendation and Blessing” at a funeral Mass.
There was a time, it seems a long time ago, when we really thought about all of our deceased loved ones who might be in need of our prayers to “get out of Purgatory.” Today, however, it seems that we automatically consign our deceased family members and friends to “God’s hands”, like giving them a pass on Purgatory.
There is a verse in today’s gospel that is re-assuring, and does tend to erase thoughts of a temporary exile into a land of dark and longing: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life (John 6:40).” This passage is part of the “Eucharistic Discourse” in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the life-giving Bread from Heaven, which means that our sharing in the Eucharist is itself a triumph over death, and a foretaste of heaven.
Today’s reading from Romans (Rom 6:7) also suggests that with death, we are no longer subject to sin: “For a dead person has been absolved from sin.” But the death it refers to is not our physical death, the passage clearly is in the context of our “dying to sin” by our Baptism into the death of Christ: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death (Rom 6:3)?” We are already “dead to sin”, and we live now for Christ, a life nourished by the Sacraments of our Faith, and which will be brought to fulfillment in our passage from this mortal life to the life into which we have already been initiated by our baptism.
So, does All Souls Day really have any meaning for a contemporary Christian, and Catholic? Briefly, “yes.” This is a day when we might no longer focus on the dividing line between purgatory and heaven, but really should consider that all of us are “in the line”, “on the way,” or “soon to be,” coming home to the Father. All of us are among those who “have died” to sin, and are already awaiting entry into the Father’s House.” We pray for the “Poor Souls,” but the “Poor Souls” are we. We are “almost there,” we are confident that God’s grace will help us pass from this life to heavenly life. We pray for those who are on the journey with us, that together we will continue to live the life of grace begun in us with baptism. We pray for those who have “gone before us,” that their faith has brought them safely home, and we pray in thanksgiving for the life of faith which our parents, grandparents, friends and family members have nurtured in us.
This is our feast day!
Fr. Arthur Carrillo, C.P. is the director of the Missions for Holy Cross Province. He lives in Citrus Heights, California.