November 5, 2023 Essay: Remembering the Dead

Oct 25, 2023

November has traditionally been the month when the Church remembers in a special way all the dead—all those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and all who have died in your mercy: welcome them into the light of your face (from the second Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass).

Last Wednesday, on the Feast of All Saints, we honored what scripture calls “the great multitude which no one can count”—all the dead, canonized or not—who have reached human fulfillment and who live now in the face-to-face vision of God. Surely, that great multitude includes people we have known—some of our own deceased relatives and friends.

Last Thursday, we celebrated the feast we used to call the Feast of All Souls. In recent years, All Souls Day has come to be known as the “Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.” There was good reason for the change in name. We remember complete persons that day, not just their souls. These were individuals not quite prepared at the time of their death to come into the presence of God. They left this world with “unfinished business,” so to speak, and require some purgation and growth to fully participate in the glorious life God has prepared for us.

The Church has given the name of Purgatory to this final stage of preparation for ultimate union with God. This is not a place of punishment for sin, a kind of hell, but rather a state of completion and healing. From its earliest days, the Church has encouraged prayers for the dead in the belief that our prayers can be efficacious in helping to bring the dead to the bliss of heaven.

These two days that begin the month of November are among the best reminders we have of the Church’s consoling teaching on the communion of saints—one of the articles of faith mentioned in the Nicene Creed that we profess at every Sunday Mass. Our Christian belief in the communion of saints holds that there is a vital connection between the living and the dead.

All of us who make up the Church on earth, all the saints in heaven, and all the dead who have not yet come to complete fulfillment in heaven are intimately related to one another. And death does not, and cannot, sever this connection.

Just as death is not the end of life, death is not the end of a relationship with a loved one who has died. Let me quote a letter I received from a parishioner whose mother had died: “We Christians have the astonishing belief that our dead are not cut off from us and from life. But that doesn’t take away the grieving. How great is the void death creates! Yet I am aware of the continuing presence of my mother, be it ever so subtle and gentle like the softest light, but consoling and strengthening.”

This daughter’s experience is an example of Catholicity in its greater extension: our communion with loved ones, deceased as well as living. Hopefully, the month of November, with its longer and darker nights, will serve to unite us more closely with all the dead—with the saints and the not-yet saints who have gone before us into the dark night of death, believing in life everlasting.

— Fr. William J. Bergen, S.J., Senior Priest