By Fr. Aaron Johanneck
November is the month during which the Church remembers in a particular way the souls of the faithful departed. The month begins with the Solemnity of All Saints on November 1. The next day, November 2, is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, or All Souls’ Day. On this day we pray in a particular way for the souls of those who died in friendship with God, but who are still in need of purification. These are the souls in Purgatory. These souls are not yet in heaven, but they are on the way. The souls in Purgatory are guaranteed salvation. Our prayers and offerings on their behalf assist them as their imperfections and earthly attachments are burned away in the fire of God’s love, and as they are prepared to enter into the joy of heaven (cf. CCC 1030).
Each year, the month of November reminds us of the importance of praying for the dead. To pray for the dead (along with the living) is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy. It is important that we not make presumptions about where a particular soul is after death. Only God knows the depths of the heart and the true state of anyone’s soul. When we presume that a soul is in heaven, or in hell for that matter, we do not see the need to pray for them. A soul in heaven does not need our prayers; and a soul in hell cannot benefit from them. We offer our prayers and have Masses celebrated for the dead, entrusting them to the love and mercy of God. In this way those souls in need of prayers are not deprived of them.
The reminder to pray for the dead that November offers us is also a good time to reflect on the purpose and importance of the funeral liturgy. The Church celebrates the funeral liturgy, especially within the Holy Mass, “to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just” (Order of Christian Funerals 5). Through the funeral rites the Church “commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins” (OCF 6). The text of the traditional Introit or Entrance Antiphon given for the Funeral Mass reminds us that at the funeral we gather to pray for the repose of the soul of the deceased: “Eternal rest grant unto him/her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him/her.” Confident in the love and mercy of God, we entrust the departed to Him through our prayers.
During the funeral, the Liturgy of the Word leads us to reflect on the Christian meaning of death. The readings from Scripture are not primarily about the one who has died, but about the hope we have in Jesus Christ. The homily, too, should “illumine the mystery of Christian death in the light of the risen Christ” and “must avoid the literary genre of funeral eulogy” (CCC 1688). The most profound consolation for those who mourn comes from the message of hope in life after death brought about through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.
During the Liturgy of the Eucharist of the Funeral Mass, the Church “expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify His child of his sins and their consequences, and to admit him to the Paschal fullness of the table of the Kingdom” (CCC 1689). The focus is always on Christ, who is the source of our hope and to whom we entrust the souls of the departed.
In November, and always, let us not deny the souls of our loved ones, nor the souls of any of the faithful departed, the benefit of our prayers.