Communion of the Saints
Remembering and Praying for Our Loved Ones in Christ
you alone give meaning
to our being together
and our being apart.
Death and Beyond in Catholic Perspective
November is very much a transitional month. The glorious foliage of October has dropped from sight and the bare trees take on a stark, pleading look. The warmth of summer and early autumn is gone, and chilly winds whisk about the streets. It is not surprising, then, that November is a reflective time; a time to observe the changes in nature and give deeper thought to the cycles of life and death, of what is enduring in human life and what is passing.
Most appropriately, November begins with two special days: All Saints Day and All Souls Day. On the first, the faithful of Christ’s church gather for the celebration of the Eucharist to praise God and honor those who are permanently alive and joyous in heaven. The next day, we offer Masses for all who have gone before us into the mystery of death, and especially for those who need God’s mercy and our intercession so that each one may more swiftly emerge from the cleansing experience of purgatory and join the company of the saints.
Death and Eternal Life
As we pray for the dead in a particular way during the month of November, the church invites us to consider seriously the question of death, our own death and that of our loved ones and our fellow human beings. What happens when we die? Are the living able to relate in love and assistance to those who have passed into eternity? The human spirit cries out for a positive answer to such questions; it longs for a real and effective way to face the mystery of death and to soften the feelings of loss.
The longing of the human spirit for blessed life after death is addressed in Scripture, and especially in the New Testament. There we learn that our longing for eternal life is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, who by his passion, death, and resurrection rescued us from sin and death and opened up the possibility of never-ending life with God. The Gospels record the many promises spoken by Jesus concerning resurrection and eternal life.
Our Life Choices
If it is the plan of God that, after death, we begin to live a new life greater than we can imagine, a life of unending peace and happiness in God, nevertheless it is a plan that God does not force upon us. He allows us the choice to cooperate, to accept and to do what we should do ― or not.
The choices we make during our lifetime have consequences both for time and eternity, and those choices will be judged by God, who is both just and merciful. Some people attempt to avoid thinking about life beyond death and about the consequences of their choices and actions. But life in eternity is not our choice; it is God’s plan. Only our destination is our choice, which is why our goal should be to know, love, and serve God during our life on earth so as to live with him eternally in heaven.
What we say of our choices leads us to reflect on the choices of others. Despite appearances, we shall never know, until we die, what actually is the true story and the final destination of someone else’s soul. (The exception, of course, are those officially recognized by the church as saints.) Therefore, we should be slow both to assume a person’s immediate possession of heaven and to despair of an individual’s salvation.
The Purifying Experience
In view of what was said above and of the need of complete freedom from sin to enter into the life of God, the Catholic Church from the earliest centuries has believed in and taught the existence of a temporary experience, after death, of purification from the consequences of personal sins. This experience is called purgatory ― a state of spiritual preparation for the full vision of God and eternal life with him.
Prayers for the Deceased
Also, the Catholic Church has believed in and taught the value of prayer for the deceased who are in the state of purification. Both the saints in heaven and the living on earth can offer intercessory prayer for those in purgatory, asking God to grant them merciful release. The church, then, encourages the living to pray for the dead; and the greatest prayer that can be offered for them is to commend them to God in Christ’s Eucharistic sacrifice.
Prayer for the deceased benefits not only the dead but also us, the living. Our intercessory prayers are a means of expressing our ongoing concern and love for them, and of keeping in touch with God and the reality of our own mortality.
Reverence for the Dead
The church from its earliest days has shown the greatest reverence for the dead and especially the baptized. In keeping with this reverence, we should see to it that the remains of the deceased are appropriately treated in the days following death and, under ordinary circumstances, should be brought to church for a Mass of Christian Burial. After a Funeral Mass and burial rites, it is customary for family and friends to continue to pray for the soul of a deceased person, particularly on special days and anniversaries. Prayers for the deceased, and especially commending them at the celebration of Mass, often bring mourners out of their isolation into a new appreciation of God’s gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ.
A Prayer for the Dead
Into your hands, Father of mercies,
we commend our brothers and sisters
in the sure and certain hope
that, together with all who have died in Christ,
they will rise with him on the last day.
We give you thanks for the blessings
which you bestowed on them in this life.
They are signs to us of your goodness
and of our fellowship with the saints in Christ.
turn toward us and listen to our prayers:
open the gates of paradise to your servants
and help us who remain
to comfort one another with assurances of faith,
until we all meet in Christ and are with you
and our brothers and sisters forever.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs come to welcome you
and take you to the holy city,
the new and eternal Jerusalem.