Commemoration of All the Departed
Who Militated Under the Rule of Saint Benedict
Psalm 63, 1, 2–3, 4–5, 7–8 (R. 1b
Gospel: John 12:23–28
Members of the Family Even in Death
We saw yesterday that each of the great Orders of the Church has its own festival of All Saints; the same is true of the Commemoration of the Departed. The Augustinians remember all their dead on November 14th, the Dominicans on November 8th, the Franciscans on November 24th, the Carmelites on November 15th, the Jesuits on November 6th, and the Benedictines and Cistercians on November 14th.
The departed remain members of the monastic family in which they were consecrated to God. Those who are still in the purifying fire of God’s just and merciful love rely on our help. They cannot pray for themselves because their time of being able to merit has forever passed, but they are not without gratitude towards those who pray for them.
In ages past one of the principal motives for entering a monastery or for becoming an Oblate was to learn the art of dying well and to secure the suffrages of the community after death: Masses, psalms, and almsgiving. In the Middle Ages it was not uncommon for married men or women to ask for the holy habit and make profession on their deathbed. Monastic profession was deemed a second baptism; moreover, it assured one of a lasting remembrance in the prayers of the community after death.
The chronicles of monasteries and the lives of the saints recount many instances of souls in purgatory returning to beg for Masses and other prayers; there are also accounts of souls returning to thank those who prayed for them and to give them a fleeting glimpse of heaven’s radiance shining on their faces.
The Eclipse of the Requiem Mass
Prayer for the dead went into a marked decline in the period of theological confusion that swept through the Church in the late 1960s and 1970s. A number of factors contributed to this weakening of charity towards the faithful departed. The Mass of Christian Burial came to be called quite inaccurately the Mass of the Resurrection, a term never authorized by the Church and found in no official liturgical book. Whereas the traditional black or violet vestments reminded us that we die as poor sinners in need of God’s purifying mercy and of the supplications of the Church, the use of white vestments was misinterpreted by many, not as a sign of hope in the mercy of God, but rather as a sign of assurance that the deceased had already been welcomed into eternal glory. Funerals turned into something resembling local beatifications or canonizations.
Other factors contributed to the neglect of prayer for the dead. The itch for variety had serious consequences. The traditional psalm of supplication for the departed, Psalm 129, De Profundis, “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice,” was often put aside in favour of other psalms deemed more optimistic, and this, in spite of a 1500 year old tradition that canonized the De Profundis as the Church’s privileged and constant prayer for her beloved dead crying for mercy “out of the depths” of God’s purifying fire.
The Church at Prayer for the Dead
The incomparable Propers of the Requiem Mass were, in most places, swept away and replaced with non–liturgical songs having little to do with the traditions of the praying Church and with the texts found in her official liturgical books. As a result, what happened? Some of the most sublime elements in the Church’s prayer for the dead began to fade from the corporate memory:
— the Introit and the Gradual, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”
— the Tract, “Lord, release the souls of the faithful departed from every bond of sin. By the help of thy grace enable them to escape the avenging judgment, and to enjoy bliss in everlasting light.”
— the Sequence, “Thou didst hear the thief’s petition, / And the Magdalene’s contrition, / Hope for me, too, of remission.”
— the Offertory, “Save them from the lion’s jaws; let them not be engulfed in hell nor swallowed up in darkness. Let Saint Michael the standard–bearer bring them into that holy light which thou of old didst promise to Abraham and his posterity.”
— the Communion, “Eternal light shine upon them, Lord, with thy saints forever, for thou art merciful.”
The Dead Forgotten
Once these and other expressions of the Church’s tender solicitude for the departed were displaced or removed, attitudes and beliefs began to change. People no longer prayed as much for the dead. Purgatory, although it is admirably presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, was rarely, if ever, mentioned in preaching and catechesis. The traditional Sunday visit to the cemetery was abandoned as more and more Catholics took themselves to the mall, the sports field, or the giant screen TV. The custom of lighting candles in church for the departed was effectively snuffed out. The practice of taking Holy Water for the relief of the souls in purgatory was dismissed as quaint and benighted. The most striking change was the dramatic decrease in Masses offered for the dead. In countries like France, Belgium, and Holland, Masses for the dead have practically disappeared.
Paradoxically, the culture of death that seeks to legitimize abortion and euthanasia goes to great lengths to conceal death. There is a shift in funeral practices: the widespread acceptance of cremation has had profound effects on what Catholics believe concerning the resurrection of the body. The custom of watching and praying by the mortal remains of loved ones is falling into disfavour. Secular culture is saying, “Keep death out of sight. Cover it over with a vague sentimentality. Keep it at a distance.”
The Nouveau Necromancers
Catholics confused by the changes in liturgical practice looked to the secular culture or to a recycled pagan religiosity in their desire to cope with death. The New Age was quick to offer them psychics and necromancers like TV celebrity John Edward. Catholics flock to his studio audience in spite of the fact that necromancy — seeking to communicate with the dead — is gravely sinful.
Deprived of an orthodox presentation of the mystery of death, some Catholics are acting more and more like the ancient Egyptians and other pagans, burying stuffed animals, toys, sports equipment, bottles of liquor, and souvenirs with their dead. At the same time one sees less and less frequently the beads of our Lady’s Rosary entwined around the hands of her children in death.
The most egregious indication of a loss of the Christian sense to death is, I think, the attitude of relatives upon whom falls the responsibility of burying an elderly family member without spouse or children. Frequently, there are no calling hours, the body is not brought to church, and there is no Mass of Christian Burial. Financial considerations are put before spiritual ones. The departed relative becomes, literally, a poor soul, forgotten, deprived of the supernatural benefits of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and of the prayers with which Mother Church surrounds her children in death.
Saint Benedict’s Wisdom
Today’s Holy Mass for the departed who did battle under the Rule of Saint Benedict reminds that we are bound to stand steadfast against the secular culture’s approach to death. How different is the world’s mentality from the wisdom of the Rule of Saint Benedict! “To fear the Day of Judgment. To dread hell. To yearn for eternal life with all possible spiritual desire. To keep death daily before one’s eyes” (RB 4:44–47). The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us of the importance of meditating assiduously on the Four Last Things. What are they? Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.
The Imitation of Christ says: “Every action of yours, every thought should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience. . . . Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow” (Imitation 1, 23, 1).
Death Before Your Eyes
Keep death daily before your eyes and you will see how easy it becomes to let go of things and to consider all your affairs from a perspective that is just and true. Keep death daily before your eyes and you will understand the importance of praying for the dead generously and faithfully. Keep death daily before your eyes and you will come to appreciate purgatory, the merciful passage of the elect through the cleansing fire of God.
The Holy Souls
And be sure of this; the souls in purgatory are Holy Souls. Their salvation is assured. They will, one day, see God face to face. And when they do, they will remember all those who will have helped them by their prayers and sacrifices. Pie Iesu Domine, dona eis requiem.