Soul searching

On All Souls Day, it is important to remember that when people die,
they are not precious because they are remembered;
they are remembered because they are precious.


By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ

All Souls Day, observed on 2 November, always becomes more poignant in wartime. In a peaceful age, we see death as personal and, generally speaking, as the fate of the elderly.  The trees and orderly graves in cemeteries telling stories of parents and children, who were loved by their families and who later joined them in neighbouring graves, depict death as the natural end of life’s cycle.

On the other hand, the recent violent deaths in Israel and the rising death toll in Gaza, as well as the conflict in Ukraine, confront us with death that is out of control. Whole families are killed, there is no space for private burials, and the network of stable relationships that bless human lives and form individuals into a community is broken. Death is indiscriminate and anonymous and almost beyond grieving.

All Souls Day is a Christian feast. Just as Christ came to join and to save all human beings, however, the message of the Day is for all people. It reminds us that each human being is precious in God’s eyes, that Christ died so that each human being should live fully, and that no one may be treated as disposable. When people die, they are not precious because they are remembered; they are remembered because they are precious.

The feast of All Souls waited for some centuries to be part of the Church calendar. But the practice of remembering and praying in the Eucharist for Christians both living and dead was long-standing. The names both of people who had died and of living members of the congregation were recorded on wax tablets held in the church and read out during the Eucharist. As monasteries spread throughout the world, they chose special dates to remember the monks who had died. This practice then spread through the Church and eventually was celebrated on November 2, the day following All Saints Day.

As time passed, praying for the dead increasingly focused on people’s need to be cleansed of the effects of sin which they carried into death and which delayed their entry to heaven. The prayers of living Christians could then help them to enter heaven. In times of anxiety about death, particularly from plague, this anxiety focused on those who had died and were in purgatory. Older Catholics may remember the zeal with which as small children they amassed indulgences to help get souls into heaven.

In today’s Church we place more stress on God’s unconditional love for us and trust that it will be more powerful than the sinfulness of those who die. We focus more on the gift that their life has been and on God’s gift of life after death. All Souls Day is an occasion to pray with those we love who have died as well as to pray for them. It is a day to recognise that we belong to a Christian community in which those who have died are united with those who live.

The association of All Souls Day this year with deaths recent and imminent in war, floods and earthquakes, however, reminds us, as the Black Death and the constant wars reminded Christians in earlier times, both of the destructive power of sin in human lives and of the breadth of God’s love for us shown in Jesus’ death. All Souls Day is a day for thanking God for those whom we have loved and joining them in prayer. But it is also a day for remembering the power of human greed and hatred, for shame and compassion for their victims, and for amazement that Christ’s love outpaces our death-dealing ways of living.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ was recently made a life member of the Australasian Catholic Press Association.

Feature photo by Rahul Pandit on Pexels.

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