November 4, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

We are united with the faithful who have gone before us

The reality of instant communication available all around the world amazes me. I can exchange a message with a seminarian in Rome instantaneously by way of the Internet. When I studied in Rome in the mid-1960s, receiving a letter from home took a week at least.

As I thought about the celebration of our annual November feast of All Saints and the commemoration of All Souls the next day, it occurred to me that despite instantaneous communication, we hear so little about the numbers of martyrs for the Catholic faith in our own day.

I was talking about this with a Trappist friend of mine recently, and he sent me a book titled The Monks of Tibhirine by John W. Kiser. It is the story of seven Trappist monks who were kidnapped and beheaded in Algeria in 1996. Their monastery was a veritable Christian island in a country in which Catholics are the tiniest of minorities. It is said the monks were not killed because of their Catholicity as such; rather it was because of their unwavering respect for the dignity of their Islamic neighbors. They lived their belief in the dignity of all human persons and died for it. I haven’t finished reading their story, but if my memory is correct, their monastery has since had to be closed.

We don’t hear much about the thousands of martyrs for the Catholic faith around the world in our own day, but contemporary martyrs outnumber those of earlier Christian eras.

A couple of weeks ago in this column, I mentioned a book, Joy of the Priesthood by Father Stephen J. Rosetti. He commented that people often wonder why there is so much external violence in the world. “There is, indeed, much anger in the world. Certainly, much of the violence stems from the anger and frustration in people’s hearts. People are frustrated and angry, and they do not know why. Many times, they are not even aware of it. We have become so inured with the anger, sadness, and violence of our dismembered world; we do not realize how far our humanity has fallen. … Many people of our world cannot find the inner nourishment for which they desperately long. It is little wonder they become violent” (p. 208-209).

Father Rosetti makes the point that our world hungers for the Bread of Life, for union with God, but looks in all the wrong places.

As we contemplate our saints and the souls who have gone before us, we might pause in thanksgiving for the faith that nourishes us. And we ought to pray gratefully for those saints living and deceased who have passed the faith on to us. Because of them, we can know who it is for whom we hunger in a confused and violent world. And we can pray gratefully for the thousands of women and men who have fallen as martyrs for the faith in our own times. Once more this November, we recall that we are united with the saints who are the triumphant members of our Church.

We are also united with those souls who have gone before us and still experience the need to be purified before advancing finally in the glory of the kingdom with God. We speak of these as the poor souls in purgatory. They also continue to be members of our Church. Most of us identify more readily with them than with the triumphant saints in heaven. Just as we have known holy people who we are convinced are saints in heaven, so, besides ourselves, we have known people who were less than perfect in living their faith. On Nov. 2, we pray for them in a special way.

Because of our belief in our communion with the saints in heaven and with the souls in purgatory, we are conscious of needing to remember our connection with them. That is one reason the Church holds them up for our commemoration during the month of November.

It is also why the Catholic Church has the age-old custom of keeping the community of the deceased together in Catholic burial grounds. From the beginning of the Church, we have created cemeteries for our deceased Catholic family. We want to remember, first of all, that some day we shall all rise again and be one with God in eternity. And we want to remember to honor our deceased sisters and brothers with our prayer for their eternal happiness.

Our visits to the tombs of our loved ones also remind us that some day we will need our descendents to pray for our repose in the house of the Father. They also remind us that our deceased loved ones are spiritually present to us. †


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