Q: Please share your thoughts on the church’s special prayer for the dead during November. Thank you.
A: November is the month for prayerfully remembering our loved ones who have died. We sometimes refer to them as the “Poor Souls.” Yet, truly they are rich souls: They are rich with the promise of the Lord’s salvation and mercy.
Our Catholic faith teaches us that the prayers of the living can help carry those who have died to the everlasting embrace of God: “May the prayer of those who plead before you benefit the souls of your servants, we pray, O Lord, so that through this sacrifice, you may free them from all their sins and make them sharers in eternal salvation. Through Christ our Lord.” (Prayer after Communion for the dead in the Roman Missal)
November is a good month for reckoning. The crops are in, or almost in, counted, sold or stored up. It’s time to batten down the hatches, count and clean the blankets, split the last pieces of firewood. Time to walk in the crisp, dead leaves.
Dead leaves. November deals with death, with closing up and sealing in. Even the trees know this. Though they appear dead, they are preparing to rest up for all of next year’s growing to come. The earth is cold, the sun retreats from the northern hemisphere, and the wind moves around to the north. All creation seems to be dying.
In the midst of all this, we Christians fling a challenge into the face of Death. Really it’s God’s own challenge to our final enemy. In this time of natural bleakness and gloom, we say to Death: “You have no permanent grip on us.” And, instead, we celebrate all of our relatives and friends who have died. For they are not dead at all, as our faith assures us. They are filled with life everlasting, living with God for ever.
This month we pray for those who have gone before us, that their passage to God’s dwelling may be swift and sure. To us, death means not decay, but harvest. Death is not the end; it is the fruition, the fulfillment. Our loved ones who have died are part of God’s in-gathering. They are part of the rich harvest of eternal life, the harvest which the Lord Jesus will gather into his kingdom on the last day. There, with them, we hope to share God’s life and glory for all eternity.
My mother, Josephine, died on June 2, 2009, at Assumption Campus in Cold Spring. Later that beautiful June evening, as I headed across the large grassy area to my apartment in St. Patrick Hall at St. John’s University, I gazed up into the clear sky filled with bright stars. And I thought to myself: “Now there’s another star up there in the sky.” Maybe the words from the prophet Daniel were behind my thoughts: “The wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, And those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever” (Daniel 12:3).
Our faith assures us of life after death. And like the stars, the faithful departed are lights for us, the living. How present are the stars these late-autumn nights! The bright stars are part of our world, yet they are far beyond it. So too are the dead, those who lived among us and who have gone from us. They remain part of our world, part of us, especially when their resting-places are close to us, as in our parish cemetery.
Like the stars, the faithful departed are lights in the darkness, beloved guides for us, the living. Like us, they have lived in earth’s dark night, experiencing the joys and sorrow of human life. Both in life and in death, they awaited the coming of Christ, their true light and ours.
For as poet Madeleine L’Engle reminds us, “Love still burns throughout the night / And the stars in their glory all sing the light.” Through the everlasting love of God, the faithful departed join the song. And so will we.
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.