Feast of All Souls: November 2, 2014

As a young priest, I lived in England for a several years. During that time I sometimes attended local Remembrance Day ceremonies commemorating the nation’s war dead. Every November 11th, representatives of different faiths, some aging military veterans and a few members of the public gathered for the ceremony around the World War I memorial in the middle of a busy intersection near the Cambridge train station. An Anglican priest would always preside. As I listened to the prayers and speeches, there was something my Catholic ear missed. Time and again I heard that the fallen and their sacrifice would be remembered, but there were never prayers for the dead. I noticed the same thing when I watched television broadcasts of the national ceremony at the Cenotaph in London. Again and again the promise to remember the dead was repeated, but there was never prayer for them. I felt the lack of prayers for the dead particularly acutely because, in the end, the promise to remember them rang hollow. The fact is that with the best will in the world, the individual fallen would not be forever remembered. If they hadn’t been already, they would eventually be lost to living memory, and finally to history. And doubtless one day their very memorial monument would be carted away to improve traffic flow. But we could pray for them, so, silently, I did.

The human instinct that there must be something meaningful that we can do for our dead runs deep. Great English churches are cluttered with elaborate memorial statuary depicting the great and the good. It is probably no coincidence that this craze for memorializing the deceased with statues and plaques dates back to the Reformation. When people were told that it was pointless to pray for their dead they turned to building elaborate monuments as an alternative means of addressing their aching need to do something for them. Some have argued that the tremendous Elizabethan and Jacobean appetite for revenge plays like Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet had a similar motivation, the idea being that if we can do nothing else for our beloved dead we can at least avenge them.

Prayer for the dead has other ethical dimensions as well. Some years ago, Eamon Duffy was asked to preach at the annual service held in Great St. Mary’s Church to commemorate the benefactors of The University of Cambridge. I don’t have a copy of his remarks in front of me, but as I recall the gist was this: He said that centuries ago, when Cambridge was still a Catholic University, the annual service for deceased benefactors was a good and wholesome thing because to pray for the rich and powerful who had died was to be reminded that they were sinners in need of our help. Now that intercession for the dead had been edited out of the program, the service had become just another occasion when the rich and powerful were exalted, and the relationship of the rest of us to them was reduced to dependence and gratitude.

All Souls Day is rooted in the conviction that everyone who has ever been alive in Christ is alive in him still. In death, the lives of the faithful are changed, not ended. “They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be deadyet is their hope full of immortality.” And that same hope is ours for them. They are in Christ as we are in Christ, so that, in Christ, our love for them and our relationship with them endure. We and our deceased loved ones needed each other while they lived. We continue to need each other now. And so, today, we offer our heartfelt prayers to our merciful God for those who have died, not forgetting to ask them to pray for us.

Fr. Charles Gordon, C.S.C.

Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”

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