One of the great things about being Catholic is our tradition and our music and our prayers.  All of that comes together in an extraordinary way each year in November.  The whole month is an interesting time filled with the feast days of great saints, but also subtle portents of eternity.  It begins with All Saints or All Hallow’s Eve (aka Halloween) which is the last day of October.  While some see ghosts and goblins, we see saints.

All Hallow’s is followed by November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, or (more officially) the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed.  All Souls’ isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation, but it is a very beautiful part of our ancient Catholic tradition.  St. Odilo in 998 A.D. established November 2nd as the date on which the monks at his monastery at Cluny would hold commemorations for their deceased members, and from Cluny, this date eventually won acceptance as “the” date for All Souls in the universal Church.

Consequently, each year here at OLM, we try to have our solemn All Souls Requiem Mass.  We chant the Roman Canon in Latin and we hear all the beautiful chants of the Requiem Mass.  It starts our All Souls Novena, and gives us all an opportunity to come hear beautiful music, pray for our beloved dead, mourn a bit those we miss, but also to reflect on the mercy of God and our hoped-for salvation.

This Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed is like no other in that it is celebrated even when it falls on a Sunday and thus overrides the usual “Sunday in Ordinary Time” Mass.  When it falls on any other day of the week, priests are encouraged to offer as many as three Masses if possible (which would otherwise normally occur only on a Sunday).  Clergy might wear black vestments on this day and they recite the Office of the Dead.

On All Souls’, the Archbishop will usually offer Mass at the cemetery in Atlanta where the priests of the Archdiocese are buried.  The faithful are also encouraged to visit cemeteries and to pray for the dead.  Many Catholics take the day to put flowers on the tombstones of their loved ones.  We go to cemeteries not to summon forth zombies, but in a sense to “commune” with the dead through our prayers, and appreciate that while they may be dead to us physically, we are connected to them through our faith in Christ Jesus and through His Church.

At OLM, we put out the Liber Defunctorum (Book of the Dead) during the month of October for parishioners to write therein the names of our deceased loved ones.  We leave the book on the credenza throughout the month of November to remind us all that November is a month to pray for the dead in general.  Also, starting on All Souls Day, we pray an All Souls Novena of nine Masses, and during this time, a bundle of envelopes tied up in a ribbon sits upon the altar.  These envelopes, with the names of the dead written upon them, remind us of the ancient practice of our spiritual forefathers of reading the names of the dead during the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.

And let us not forget that for us here in America, it is within November where falls Thanksgiving, a day for reflecting upon family and our ancestors, and upon the settlement of our nation, but also reflecting upon God’s providence.  In the northern hemisphere, the bounty is being harvested at this time of year, so November becomes a natural time for us to reflect upon the final judgment, when the Lord of the Harvest will return to separate the wheat from the weeds.  Thus, during November, we might listen to the ancient hymn Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) and in our prayer, turn more to the contemplation of the final things.

Another great feast of November is Christ the King, which is the last Sunday of Ordinary Time.  This, too, is a reminder of the end of days and the second coming of Christ in glory, as are the first weeks of Advent that begin in December.


Praying for the Dead

One of the least visited collections of the Vatican Museum is the Paleo-Christian section, but that section is most intriguing, for one sees how our image0041ancestors in the Faith carved into the funerary sarcophagi their understanding of Catholicism and of prayer for the dead.  And then, there are the catacombs just outside of Rome, roughly 375 miles tunneled through the stone (put in one line and stretched out, it would be the distance from Atlanta to Memphis).  Likely no one has seen all the twists and turns of the Roman catacombs, but just descending into the first and earliest sections gives one another glimpse into how our Catholic ancestors understood death – all throughout the Christian catacombs one sees prayers for the dead.

Today, praying for the dead is something too many of us have stopped doing.  We have come to believe as the Protestants do, that “once saved, always saved” and that all who declare Christ their Lord will go straight to Heaven upon death.  But this has never been what the Church teaches and it is not true.  Nothing but perfection may enter Heaven, and none of us is perfect.  We need the purging, the cleansing of our souls, before we can enter the Perpetual Light.  Properly speaking, a Funeral Mass is not supposed to be a canonization, wherein we presume the deceased individual is in heaven.  Rather a Funeral Mass is more traditionally a Requiem Mass, because we’re supposed to be praying for God’s mercy, and for our loved one’s rest and peace.  How tragic that the poor souls in Purgatory are left with no one to pray for them because we presume they are already in Heaven.

The Church has prayed for our deceased loved ones from the beginning.  It is actually a practice we inherited from the Jewish people.  While the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, other Jewish sects, including the Pharisees, did.  Their prayers offered for the dead included pleas for mercy for the soul of their deceased loved one and that the Lord allow their loved one to rest in peace awaiting the resurrection.  Today, it is difficult to “prove” this from scripture if we are using a Protestant or Jewish Bible, for the principle reference of the practice is found in II Maccabees, a book which Protestants and Jews no longer consider canonical.

But Catholics do consider II Maccabees a canonical book in our Old Testament.  In the story, Judas Maccabeus has sin offerings made on behalf of his fallen soldiers, whom he discovered were wearing pagan amulets beneath their tunics when they were killed.  He clearly does this with hope in God’s mercy in the afterlife towards these comrades.  We can find additional references to praying for the dead in Matthew 12:31-32, where our Lord teaches the possibility of sins being forgiven both “in this world” and “in the world to come.”  And St. Paul clearly prays for the soul of Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy, 1:16-18; 4:19.

Part of the Christian Tradition

Given the canonical dispute over II Maccabees, it is far easier to demonstrate that praying for the dead has been a part of the Catholic life from the beginning if we look at Tradition, and in particular at funeral customs and the Holy Liturgy.  The ancient Christian tombs of the catacombs have funeral inscriptions that are clearly prayers for the dead, and many of these prayers closely resemble the words of our Requiem Mass chants.  In the earliest days of the Church, the names of the dead were entered onto diptychs (hinged two-leaf tablets) which probably were put upon the altar during the Sacrifice of the Mass and read out loud.  Even today, in the oldest of our Eucharistic prayers (Eucharist Prayer I), the priest pauses at the place where those names were likely read in ancient days (Remember also, Lord, your servants N. and N., who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace…).

What is more, the writings of the early Church Fathers demonstrate that praying for the dead is as old as the Church.  Tertullian and Saint Basil the Great indicated that praying for the dead was already a time-honored tradition known to them from the earliest days of the apostles.  Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, writing around 350 A.D., wrote of praying for the dead, believing that the petitions were very beneficial to the souls of those who had fallen asleep.  One great example is that of Saint Augustine and Saint Monica.  For those of us familiar with the story, we know that Augustine’s salvation was due in part to the persistent prayer of his mother, Monica.  On her deathbed, Monica admonished her son for frivolously thinking of where she would be buried and instead asked her son to remember her at the altar of God (that is at the Mass).  His filial love did not allow him to presume that his mother was in Heaven, and he prayed that God would show his mother mercy.  So, just as Augustine’s mother had prayed for his salvation, he later would pray for hers (and today, they are both recognized as saints in the Church).

But if we pray for the dead, and believe there is the possibility of post-death purification, then this leads the Church to try to explain how this happens.  The Church does so through the doctrine of “Purgatory.”

On Purgation

One of the most radical cultural changes that accompanied the advent of the Protestant Reformation (now almost five hundred years old) was the loss of the tradition of praying for the dead.  While Martin Luther did not dissuade his new church from praying for the dead, he did reject yearly celebrations of Requiem Masses as “the devil’s annual fair.”  And while the Anglican Book of Common Prayer characteristically approached the subject of praying for the dead with some reluctant ambivalence, it went on to condemn the teaching of Purgatory as “vainly invented” and “repugnant to the Word of God.”  Regardless, the Church’s tradition of praying for the dead and the Church’s teaching on Purgatory are linked.  What can we then say about this much maligned doctrine?

The most important thing we can say about the Church’s doctrine of purification in the life to come (or Purgatory) is that it is a teaching of hope, and an answer to prayers that we might be made pure.  At death, our particular judgment by God determines whether we will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell.  If Hell, all is said and done.  If Heaven, we cannot enter until we have been purged of all imperfection.  This belief that whatever is not of God that remains within us can be purged and purified after death is based on our call to be perfect (which the Lord has called us to) and yet also reflects the reality that few of us ever reach this perfection prior to our death.  This purifying journey towards full beatitude is what the Church means when she speaks of the doctrine of Purgatory.

The Church has consistently referred to this as a time of suffering and of temporal punishment (as opposed to eternal punishment).  Moreover, the analogy of refining gold is also one that is sometimes applied, when the individual is cleansed and every trace of attachment to evil is eliminated.  The sins are already forgiven, but in God’s perfect justice, there nevertheless remain some consequences of those sins.  And yet it is critical to stress that this is not a state of hopelessness nor should it rightly be thought of as a time of physical pain (for these are souls, remember).  Rather this is a spiritual preparation for eternity, a time of contrition for past sins, a time to see the consequences of our sins, and a time to let go of all that binds us to old vices, as we are drawn nearer to the holiness of God.

This doctrine (like the Church’s teachings on the Communion of the Saints) also reminds us that we Catholics who are alive and well today remain connected to (indeed bound to) our loved ones who have gone before us, and that our prayers for them are efficacious.  To pray for the dead is to recognize they were not perfect, but in our charity, we offer prayers on their behalf, and hope that the Lord will accept them as if they were a perfect sacrifice.  To pray for the dead is to recognize that God’s mercy is not limited by only what our own physical sight can see and measure, but that His mercy extends into eternity.  To pray for the dead is to appreciate that the power of God’s mercy is not bound by time.  Lastly, we should like to add for our more modern minds, that it may be helpful to look upon the doctrine of Purgatory as more a process than a place, and yet it is a process that most of the saints have gone through, and that most all of us will go through if we are very, very blessed.

On Indulgences

Linked to the notion of praying for the dead is the notion of the Church’s granting indulgences, but the very word “indulgence” conjures up such misconceptions that most Catholics all but run from the topic in polite company these days.  Simply put, an indulgence is a remission of temporal punishment that the Church grants (usually in response to some act of charity, like praying the rosary) and that is generally applied to the “suffering souls.”  Now, there is no denying that there has been confusion on the subject in the past.  Biblically speaking, Saint Paul, in his letter to the Colossians 1:24, reminds us that our sufferings for the sake of others can complete what is lacking in our Lord’s afflictions for the sake of the Church.  Elsewhere St. Paul, writing in I Corinthians 12:12-26, reminds us that the Church is one, and if one suffers, we all suffer.  Indulgences are something like our sharing in the suffering of our loved ones.

Nevertheless, it is important to stress that indulgences cannot buy forgiveness (for anyone who is in process of purgation is already forgiven), nor can they deliver anyone from Hell (for people in the process of purgation are not going to Hell).  Nor should we try to apply our notions of “days” and “years” to Purgatory, which remains outside of our own physical constraints of space and time.  Furthermore, indulgences are neither bought nor sold.  While it is true that indulgences were in the past linked to almsgiving for some charities or for the construction of great churches, this was never simply and crudely “selling” an indulgence, but rather linking it to a good work of charity.

Mass Intentions

By tradition, most Masses offered around the world are offered specifically in memory of a loved one and as a prayer to be offered for the repose of the soul of the individual.  We might all have particular intentions for the Mass, but there is one unique intention for the Mass (which is generally made known to the people of God).  How do you get a Mass intention for your loved one?  Well, you go to the parish office where you decide upon a particular Mass.  You then give a donation for the priest (a “stipend;” at OLM, we ask $10) and receive a Mass card to give to the family of the person for whom you are having the Mass said.  This practice of applying the grace of the Holy Sacrifice of a Mass for the repose of the soul again goes back to the earliest days of the Church.  Tertullian (writing before 216 A.D.) mentioned that Christians offered sacrifices for the dead on the anniversary of their loved one’s death, and that they prayed for the souls of their deceased spouses, offering the Mass on the anniversary of that spouse’s death.  Just a note:  the Mass is even more efficacious for a person’s soul when that person is still living, so you don’t have to wait for the person to die to have a Mass said for him/her!

Requiem Masses

While virtually every Mass could have the intention for the repose of the soul of an individual, the Requiem Mass is a special Mass, identified today more or less by its music, which is particularly focused as a prayer for the repose of the soul of an individual or individuals.  The term “requiem” is the “rest” or “repose” for which we are praying, and the Requiem Mass takes its origin from the first word of the introit (or opening chant) of that Mass, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord”).  Many of the finest composers of serious music in the last centuries have set the Requiem Mass texts to dramatic music, but those compositions are extrapolations from the simple Latin chants of the Requiem Mass, some of which are themselves quite old (10th century).  Our All Souls Mass will borrow most of the chanted components from the old Requiem Masses for its music.  Even the venerable Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) sequence can sometimes be chanted as a prelude, but there are other chants as well.

For at least a thousand years one of the great chants for a funeral Mass or an interment is the Subvinete.  Sometimes a priest will chant a version of this at the graveside.  As such, the last official words of the Church for a deceased loved one will be these prayers of petition, calling upon the Lord’s mercy.


Our last words on this post will be this English translation of the Subvinete.  Perhaps you have someone for whom you need to pray the Subvinete even now?

For the men folk:

Saints of God, come to his aid!
Come to meet him, angels of the Lord!
Receive his soul and present him to God, to God the Most High.

May Christ, who called you, take you to Himself;
May angels lead you to Abraham’s side.
Receive his soul and present him to God, to God the Most High.

Give him eternal rest, O Lord,
And may your light shine upon him forever.
Receive his soul and present him to God, to God the Most High.

For the women:

Saints of God, come to her aid!
Come to meet her, angels of the Lord!
Receive her soul and present her to God, to God the Most High.

May Christ, who called you, take you to Himself;
May angels lead you to Abraham’s side.
Receive her soul and present her to God, to God the Most High.

Give her eternal rest, O Lord,
And may your light shine upon her forever.
Receive her soul and present her to God, to God the Most High.