November 1, 2013
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
In the pastoral life of the Church, the month of November has traditionally been designated as a special time to pray for our beloved dead. On November 2, the liturgical Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, commonly known as All Souls’ Day, the Church exhorts her sons and daughters to pray for those souls who are in purgatory, undergoing a process of purification before they enter into the presence of our merciful and loving God where they will experience eternally the joy of heaven.
At the beginning of the month of All Souls, I would like to address in this pastoral letter a situation that is becoming all too frequent within the Catholic community. I refer to the growing practice of Catholic families of not providing their deceased family members with the Mass of Christian Burial. The funeral rites of the Church consist of three distinct parts: 1) the prayer vigil for the deceased (the wake), 2) the celebration of the Mass of Christian Burial (the Funeral Mass) and 3) the Rite of Committal. Of these three rites, the Church reminds us “the Mass, the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral.”
In the Catholic tradition, the Mass is offered daily for both the living and the dead. When a member of the Catholic community dies, the Church, who is our Mother and Teacher, exhorts the remaining members of the Church, in particular the family members of the deceased, to gather to offer the Holy Eucharist for their beloved dead, thus commending the deceased to the merciful love of God and pleading for the forgiveness of his or her sins.
In recent times, we often hear the Mass of Christian Burial described, even by priests and deacons in their homilies, as “the celebration of the life” of the deceased person. Such a description is theologically inaccurate. The Mass of Christian Burial is the privileged time when we pray for our beloved dead, asking God to forgive his or her sins and to render a merciful judgment to our brother or sister who has gone before us marked with the sign of faith. It is through the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ that sin and death have been definitively destroyed and that we who have been united to this redemptive mystery through faith and baptism have been given the hope of eternal glory in heaven.
The prayer vigil, however, is more fittingly the proper moment in the funeral rites to reflect on and remember the life and accomplishments of the deceased. In fact, it is becoming quite common for pictures of the deceased to be displayed at the wake and for familiar stories to be told about the deceased. This practice is commendable as an appropriate and respectful way of celebrating the life of the deceased.
It is true that God wills that all people to be saved and that none be lost (1Tim: 2:4). However, while we hope that all will enter into heaven after their death, we cannot presume that this is always the case. Therefore, it is one of the spiritual works of mercy to pray for the dead, most especially by offering the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, the Church’s most powerful and efficacious prayer, for their eternal repose. Not to have the Mass of Christian Burial offered for our beloved deceased family members, especially someone for whom attendance at Mass had been an integral part of his or her life as a practicing Catholic, is to deny that person a source of healing and forgiving grace.
During this month of All Souls, I would urge the Catholic faithful of the Diocese of Worcester to reflect seriously on our spiritual solidarity and care for our beloved dead. An ancient teaching of the Church which we profess in the Apostles Creed is the communion of saints. On the day of our baptism, we are individually united to the person of Christ and enter sacramentally into his redeeming death and Resurrection. Indeed, in the water of baptism we die with Christ so as to rise with him to new life. By being united to Christ, we are also united through him to all those who are members of his Body, the Church. In this way, the communion of saints is established and this communion lasts for both time and eternity. Because of the communion of saints, our prayers for the dead can be spiritually beneficial for those who are in purgatory.
My fervent hope is that this month of November dedicated to the souls in purgatory will provide a time for us to retrieve a venerable practice of praying for our beloved dead. This prayer can be a significant source of consolation and hope for the living as well as a source of spiritual benefit for the dead. In this spirit, I conclude with the words of a prayer that has been recited for centuries as a profession of faith in the mercy of God and our common hope of sharing in the peace of the Risen Christ forever.
“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.”
With every prayerful best wish, I remain
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Robert J. McManus Bishop of Worcester