It’s in Sacred Scripture (2 Maccabees 12:46); it’s in Sacred Tradition (see Catechism, 1032); it’s a spiritual work of mercy (praying for the living and the dead) and, by extension, a corporal work of mercy (burying the dead). Today, the Church highlights the importance of this teaching which is constantly repeated. Perhaps the most beautiful reason for this custom of remembering and praying for the dead is that, in the words of the Song of Songs (8:6) “Love is as stern as death” (understood to mean that love is a force equal in power to death, and which death cannot destroy). Since we love those who have gone before us “marked with the sign of faith”, we want to speed them on their journey to the Home of our Father, and, once there, they are compelled by that same union of love to aid us on our own journey.
It’s really quite a beautiful custom, then, that we are invited to pray for the dead on this “Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.” Life in the Eternal City is no different; this morning, a number of the priests and seminarians of the North American College made the journey to Campo Verano, the cemetery of Rome. Inside the cemetery are some of the most stunning funerary monuments and mausoleums that I think I’ve seen in my life. Walking past the graves and mausoleums (bigger than some houses I’ve seen), I couldn’t help but think how even cemeteries in the Hispanic world (if you’ve seen one of those) don’t hold a candle to these. One of those Mausoleums is that belonging to the North American College.
This structure is 3 stories tall with a basement crypt, built to house the remains of those priests, professors, seminarians, and benefactors connected with the North American College and the Casa Santa Maria. For those of you familiar with the story of the Servant of God, Frank Parater, seminarian of the Diocese of Richmond, VA, he’s interred in the top floor of the mausoleum. Meditating on the reading of Morning Prayer for this day [Oh my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them…I have spoken and I will do it, says the Lord. (Ez37:12, 14)] takes on a whole new meaning when you’re surrounded by graves full of bone and ash. Thinking shallowly, God is going to have a lot of work to do! At a more profound level, it will be profoundly remarkable to witness such a feat and it will truly demonstrate that this is something of which only God is capable.
To further highlight the importance of this teaching flowing from the two-fold Commandment of Charity (toward God & toward neighbor), Pope Benedict XV (1915), echoing the words of Benedict XIV (1748), granted to all priests the permission to celebrate 3 Masses on this Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. At the time, it was instituted so as to satisfy for all the Mass intentions which could not or would not be celebrated in Europe as a result of WWI as well as to pray for the countless soldiers killed during the “Great World War.” While normally, priests are only to celebrate one Mass per day (unless pastoral need requires), today, all priests have a universal permission (and, more importantly, a beautiful opportunity) to celebrate 3 Masses. In fact, the Roman Missal (book of prayers for the Mass), offers 3 unique sets of “Presidental” Prayers (prayers prayed by the presider/priest – say that 3 times fast!), that is the Collect (Opening Prayer), Prayer over the Gifts (at the Offertory), and the Prayer after Communion (…after Communion) for this day.
While this might be seen by some as more of a burden than a blessing, it would seem there’s a profoundly beautiful development taking place through the liturgy of this day. First, the Collects for the 3 Masses of the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed:
Listen kindly to our prayers, O Lord, and, as our faith in your Son, raised from the dead, is deepened, so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants also find new strength. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.
O God, glory of the faithful and life of the just, by the Death and Resurrection of whose Son we have been redeemed, look mercifully on your departed servants, that, just as they professed the mystery of our resurrection, so they may merit to receive they joys of eternal happiness. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.
O God, who willed that your Only Begotten Son, having conquered death, should pass over into the realm of heaven, grant, we pray, to your departed servants that, with the mortality of this life overcome, they may gaze eternally on you, their Creator and Redeemer. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.
In themselves, these words give a beautiful understanding and presentation of the Church’s teaching on salvation through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our own death, and our hope of eternal life. As I said, however, there seems to be an important theological instruction which the Church is giving us in these simple prayers.
In acknowledging the dead, perhaps the first thing which comes to our minds is sorrow. We miss them! There’s sadness; there are tears; there’s an unavoidable pain. That sadness, those tears, that pain doesn’t go away after a few hours or a few days or even a few weeks or months. This is a profound sadness; this profound spiritual pain is a natural response of love to the absence of our beloved dead. It is not abnormal for such sadness to be latent even years later when we think about them. While recognizing this natural response (as seen by the black vestments often worn by priests), the Church does not want us to lose hope. We are a people of hope, hope in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, who has promised to raise our mortal bodies. In the first Mass, there is this focus on hope. In spite of the sorrow, we have this confidence which is rooted in the repeated promises of God to save His faithful ones, to lead them through the shadow of death, and to bring them safely home to “green pastures.” We specifically ask the Lord to strength that hope in the face of sadness and sorrow so that we may focus not on death, but on Eternal Life.
Before achieving this eternal salvation, there are obstacles to be overcome; namely, our sins. By our sins, we are saying – in little ways and big ways – that we prefer to be our own little gods rather than to be the faithful servants of the One, True God. These obstacles can certainly be overcome by the power of “the Death and Resurrection” of Jesus Christ by whom “we have been redeemed”. This is an important lesson – perhaps the important lesson of this 2nd Mass of the Day – which Holy Mother Church does not want us to forget! There is here a rejection of the notion that “everyone gets to go to Heaven no matter what.” It’s just not true; not everyone gets to go to Heaven, but it’s not because God wants to keep us out of Heaven, but because we haven’t cooperated with God’s loving plan to get us there. Recognizing that sins must be overcome prior to entering the absolute purity of Eternal Life, we ask the Merciful Father, “glory of the faithful and life of the just” to “look mercifully on Your departed servants” and forgive them their sins “so that they may merit to receive the joys of eternal happiness.”
If you’re not used to attending Mass except on Sundays or perhaps only two to three times per week, 2 Masses on a single day may seem staggering (as does this blog post). The third Mass just might be the death of you, but then again, what better day on which to die than the day on which we’re praying for the dead! There’s still one more component to this day which Holy Mother Church wants to keep before our eyes. In death, we “see” the separation of body and soul, we experience the emotional (and sometimes even physical) pain associated with the death of our beloved family members and friends, and we pray that God may forgive them their sins that they may enjoy the promises of Eternal Life…but wait, THERE’S MORE! God’s loving plan of salvation just couldn’t tolerate these freakish beings: namely, human souls without a body. It’s a violation of His plan of creation; it’s un-natural; it’s a certain “un-creation.” Thus, the completion of God’s plan of salvation involves the resurrection of our bodies from the dead. We shouldn’t just want to see God, we should literally want to SEE God, and He wants us to SEE Him with our own two eyes! That’s part of the reason why Jesus Christ told Martha and Mary (John11), “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He said it; we should be as confident of it as if someone had said the sky is blue. Thus, the Church puts on our lips words to remind ourselves of God’s promise to us, and to “remind” God of His promise, and to ask that that promise be fulfilled (preferably sooner rather than later): “grant, we pray, to Your departed servants that, with the mortality of this life overcome, they may gaze eternally on You, their Creator and Redeemer…”
We want the fullness of salvation and God wants it for us. We believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. The Church invites us to the Altar 3 times on this day to heal our minds and hearts, to exchange our sorrow for joy, our despair for hope, and our earthly pains for the expectation of Eternal Life where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. For see you, our God, as You are, we shall be like You for all ages and praise You without end.