Today the Church celebrates All Souls. This day of prayer for the souls of our departed loved ones (Commemoratio omnium fidelium defunctorum) dates to the early tenth century and the abbey of Cluny in Burgundy. It has since given birth to cultural celebrations that incorporate pre-Christian festivals for the veneration of the dead, from Ireland (Samhain) to Mexico (Dia de los muertos). Most often today the diverse cultural aspects are the focus of attention. It is worth pausing as a faith community to remember also the important connection of the day to our communion with the poor and the abandoned of this world.
The common lot of humanity is that we die in some spiritual state between sanctity and damnation, that is, we believe that we and our loved ones die a little bit good and a little bad. For us the time before the Last Judgment is one of spiritual cleansing. While awaiting the culmination of all things in Christ, the souls of the dead, who by their goodness in this life have merited eventual peace in the afterlife, are able to benefit from the good works of others. That is why we pray for the dead. Perhaps the most familiar prayer of this kind is the Memento etiam of the mass: “Remember, Lord, those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, especially those for whom we now pray, N. and N. May these, and all who sleep in Christ, find in your presence light, happiness, and peace, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
If our deceased friends and relatives knew when alive what they see now in anticipation of heaven they would have done so much more by way of love. So, in their stead we take up good works and on their behalf offer prayers, attend mass, and support the poor and abandoned. These gestures of good works on the behalf of the dead are at the heart of All Souls’ Day. Monasteries and other religious houses of the Middle Ages had become the refuge for the abandoned and the poor. The fact that the collective name for monastic dependents, nonnones, was the same word for the elderly is good evidence that older folks who had outlived or had been abandoned by their families formed the bulk of the helpless poor. Contracts for prayers for the dead follow a standard formula. In exchange for remembrance at mass, either on anniversary days or collectively in books called libri vitae (books of life), a donor would give money or goods in perpetuity for food, clothing, and shelter for the poor.
In an interesting turn, Peter Lombard asked in the twelfth century about the souls of people who have no one to pray for them. His answer is an application of the belief in the Communion of the Saints, whereby he says that those souls are aided by the prayers of the saints in heaven:
“I judge that [the soul], as if crossing through fire, will be saved by the merits and intercessions of the heavenly Church, which intercedes always for the faithful by prayer and merit until Christ be fulfilled (Sentences, book 4, 45.5).”
God’s mercy disregards no one and urges us even in the memory of our loved ones to think of the larger family of humanity. Monks and nuns used to remember a departed community member by seating and feeding an extra person in the guest house. Perhaps we could do similarly and fill up the void left in the death of someone we love by restoring an abandoned brother or sister to the warmth of community. What better way to honor the Commemoration of All Souls?
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