October 31, 2008


Saints and souls

This weekend, the Catholic Church observes the feasts of All Saints on Saturday and All Souls on Sunday. (Note that Saturday’s feast is not a holy day of obligation this year since it falls on a Saturday, but the Church still celebrates it as a solemnity.)

These are very Catholic feasts since most Protestant Churches (though not all) don’t share our practice of honoring saints or praying for departed souls.

We believe that most people have heroes—perhaps someone who was a great influence on them. For Catholics, the saints are our heroes.

For centuries, local dioceses remembered holy people after their deaths, calling them saints and praying to them to ask for their intercession with God. Finally, the popes reserved for themselves the right to declare someone a saint.

The Church canonizes saints to offer them as role models. Those of us who are still trying to work out our salvation can try to emulate some of the virtues displayed by those who were recognized for their holiness.

But there are many more saints than just those the Church has officially canonized, which is why we have the feast of All Saints.

To be a saint means simply that that person is in heaven. Naturally, we hope that all of us will be saints after we die, although there is not much chance that the Church will officially declare us so.

We hope that our relatives and friends who have died are saints, and so we pray to them for their intercession.

Some people object to praying to anyone except God, but our practice comes from the doctrine of the communion of saints that is part of the Apostles’ Creed. Catholics believe that the saints in heaven—and that includes anyone in heaven, not just those who have been canonized—can pray for us, just as those on Earth can do.

That is why the Church’s official liturgical prayer on Saturday says, “Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, today we rejoice in the holy men and women of every time and place. May their prayers bring us your forgiveness and love.”

But perhaps our friends and relatives aren’t yet in heaven. That is where the feast of All Souls comes in. Sacred Scripture says that nothing impure will enter the kingdom of heaven. But we know that not everyone who dies is worthy to enter into perfect and complete union with God. Nor has he or she rejected God’s mercy enough to sentence himself or herself to hell.

Therefore, there must be some process of purification to make them worthy to enter heaven. That is what we call purgatory, the process of purification during which every trace of sin is eliminated and every imperfection is corrected.

When does this happen? We simply don’t know. Perhaps it occurs immediately after death or even in the process of dying. The Catholic Church doesn’t say when this will occur since the concept of time is meaningless in eternity.

Unfortunately, some pious folklore has made purgatory seem like a

mini-hell where people spend years and years of torture and pain before finally being allowed into heaven.

That, though, is not Catholic teaching. As Pope John Paul II said on Aug. 4, 1999, “Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God, but are immersed in the love of Christ.”

Just as praying for the intercession of the saints is part of the doctrine of the communion of saints, so is our belief that we, the relatives and friends of the deceased, can assist those who have died with our prayers.

Pope John Paul alluded to this in the same address when he said that the souls in purgatory are not separated from the saints in heaven or from us on Earth.

“We all remain united in the Mystical Body of Christ,” he said, “and we can therefore offer up prayers and good works on behalf of our brothers and sisters in purgatory.”

Belief in the efficacy of prayers for the dead goes back at least as far as the Second Book of Maccabees (2 Mc 12:39-46).

—John F. Fink

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