Commemoration of the faithful departed – Not just some grave side activity

Commemoration of the faithful departed – Not just some grave side activity

For most Catholics, this day is sadly reduced to ‘an activity’ at the grave side of a loved one without a deeper understanding of it. Graves are ornately decorated and candles lit as the family members stand in prayer. But all soul’s day is more than some grave side activity. I hope through this article to enlighten you on several fronts as to why this day (not a day of obligation and yet) is one of the most important days of our catholic faith.

Following the feast of All Saints, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of All Souls on November 2. Briefly and coming to the point this celebration remembers all the souls who have died and have not yet attained Heaven, who are still atoning for the sins in their lives.

As early as the second century, Christians commemorated the anniversary of the dead, especially of the martyrs. By the sixth century Benedictine monasteries held commemoration ceremonies for their deceased members. Our current observance of a single day for the dead dates to the seventh century and it is known that St. Isadore of Seville encouraged it. Sometime in the 10th century, the Catholic priest St. Odilo of Cluny instituted All Souls’ Day as November 2nd the day following the feast of All Saints. In his decree, he said that Masses should be offered for the dead, and alms given to the poor. This custom spread to other monasteries and eventually by the fourteenth century Rome extended that practice to the universal Church. The annual celebration became the final and third day of Allhallowtide—right after All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day. It is not only Christians who remember those who have gone before us. The muslims have Shab-e-Barat, the Hindus during Pithru Paksha, and the Buddhists and Parsis also observe it.

According to Catholic belief, the soul of a person who dies goes to one of three places. It could go to Heaven; heaven is a state where a person who dies in perfect grace and communion with God goes. Then there is Hell, where those who die in a state of mortal sin are naturally condemned by their own choice. Finally, there is Purgatory. The Church recognises that few people achieve perfection in this life (after all, we are human!), and therefore, go to the grave with remaining traces of sinfulness; a period of purification is necessary to prepare the soul to join God. Purgatory is where souls are cleansed and perfected before they enter heaven.

Granted that Purgatory is not a popular idea these days. For some, Purgatory can be a frightening and even confusing thought. Why doesn’t God, in His infinite mercy, simply take all our loved ones who followed Him straight to Heaven? The answer is simple. He does! And the path for them to Heaven is this incredible mercy of their final purification.

Here is why I want to ask you to erase everything you know ‘popularly about purgatory’. Think now of Purgatory as a gift, as a grace, as God’s mercy. It comes from the same root as the word for “purgation,” and in this case is a kind of ridding ourselves of our sinfulness.

This purification is necessary because God, in His love, does not want any soul to live eternally with even a minor attachment to sin. God wants us all free. The truth is that every sin on our soul, even the smallest one, is reason enough for us to be excluded from Heaven.

Purgatory is the ante-chamber of heaven, the place of waiting and preparation where the soul is readied to enter and absorb God’s light. But souls in purgatory have no free will or ability to atone by themselves for themselves. They depend on us. They advance in purification due to our prayers and offerings for them. This is why we pray for the dead and offer Masses for their advancement into heaven. Today we put our fingers on that scale and tip the balance in favour of those we love who have gone before us

The belief in purgatory has not been without controversy. Certainly, some flagrant abuses of the doctrine were used to raise money for the Church during the renaissance. Famously, Martin Luther argued with the monk, Johan Tetzel, over the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were sold as spiritual pardons to the poor and applied to the souls of the dead (or the living) to get people into heaven. The abuse of indulgences and the blatant, sometimes fraudulent practice of selling indulgences for money, led to Luther’s protest.

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he omitted the seven books of the canon which refer to prayers for the dead. He then introduced the heretical belief that people are simply saved, or not, and argued that there is no need to pray for the dead to get them into heaven. The Church reeled from Luther’s accusation, and reformed its practice of selling indulgences. However, it reemphasised the Biblical and traditional practice of praying for the departed and the importance of such prayers.

Several people today will continue the age-old custom of offering three masses this day. The custom of offering three masses on this day began in Spain in the fifteenth century. It was Pope Benedict XV who extended this privilege to the entire Church. I pray that today many parents will lead their children and the youth to Church to pray for their loved ones who are waiting for their prayer.

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