I was a missionary in Ecuador for about a year when my dad passed away. At the time, I was serving at a very remote mission site that had no telephone at all. My sister contacted the provincial house of our missionary order in the capital city of Quito to notify me. I finally got the news via a CB radio, a message that had to pass through many different missionary priests in order for it to finally reach me in the jungle. It took me several days of travel, but I was able to make it back for the funeral, which really meant a lot to me. However, since my dad was buried in Chicago, and the funeral was in southern California, I was not able to go to his gravesite until several years later when I had completed my term as a missionary and returned once again to the United States. I placed a small wooden cross at his gravesite in Rosehill that my students in Ecuador had made, as well as a rosary that I had gotten in Ecuador. It was important to me to honor him in that way, and to remember him as I continued on my journey as a missionary. I think all of us want to remember, honor, commemorate, and pray for our deceased loved ones in a special way, which is reason that the two day celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day is such a popular festival for the Catholic faithful.
Paul speaks about the virtue hope in his letter to the Romans. Paul said that this hope we have will not disappoint us, because it has been poured into our hearts by God through the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis says that the two great feasts that we celebrate this weekend – All Saints Day and All Souls Day – are celebrations of hope. The celebrations of these days are to bring hope into our hearts – to be a leaven to our spirits just as we are to be leaven in the world. We all go through difficult moments in our lives, such as the time in which we lose a loved one, but with the hope that is in our hearts and in our faith, we press forward and we keep on eyes focused on those eternal truths that matter, we keep focused on what awaits us. Today, All Souls Day, is a day of hope because we know that our brothers and sisters who died in the love of Christ are in eternal life with him. We place our hope in that eternal life for ourselves. We place our hope that one day we, too, will be in the loving arms of Jesus, the Good Shepherd whom we sang about in Psalm 23, that he will lead our souls to eternal rest and refreshment.
Since those first centuries after the death and resurrection of Christ, the Church has consistently encouraged the offering of prayers and Mass for the souls of the faithful departed in Purgatory. At the time of their death, those souls were not cleansed completely of their past sins nor had they atoned completely for their past transgressions, and thus were not ready for unification with God. The faithful here on earth assist these souls in Purgatory in attaining eternal life with the divine through our prayers, our good works and the offering up of Mass.
We use All Saints Day and All Souls Day to start our commemoration of November of a month of remembrance, in which we in the Church traditionally remember those who have entered eternal life with our Lord. This act of remembering is not just a nostalgic looking back, but rather a way of building up and maintaining our holy community, of making the love and mercy and goodness of God present in our lives. We remember in this way each time we celebrate the Eucharist as a community. And this weekend’s remembrance takes on additional significance as we remember the souls of the faithful departed.
In the opening prayer that we use for the wake service at the death of a loved one, the priests exclaims that we the faithful believe that all the ties of friendship, love and affection that knit us together as one throughout our lives do not unravel with our earthly death. Our loved ones are still united with us in their eternal life, where they offer up prayers and intercessions for us, and we in return offer prayers for them. We have our altar cloth at St James where we write down the names of our loved ones and remember them during the entire month of November. Remembering and being connected to our deceased loved ones and to those who passed down the faith to us throughout history is an important part of what we celebrate in these two feasts in the Church this weekend. When we went out to the cemetery at St Thomas in Tupelo this weekend, we see those mothers and fathers of the early Catholic community here in the Tupelo area who were pioneers of Catholicism in Northeast Mississippi. Often they had to travel far to attend mass, often they had to bring in priests from the Benedictine monastery in Alabama, but living out their Catholic faith was an important part of their lives that they would not give up. When I blessed the graves in historic Glenwood cemetery in Yazoo City, we always started at the graves of the priests and nuns buried there, some of whom died in the yellow fever epidemics that struck the Mississippi in the 19th century. In is important for us to remember and to pray for those to whom we are connected in our families and our lives of faith, to offer thanksgiving and blessings to them for their faith and their example.
The promise of eternal life that Jesus gives us in the Gospel today gives us hope and encouragement, especially during the ups and downs of our own journey. May that hope be present in our prayers and worship today.