It is November, and it is the month of the Holy Souls. Monday was the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, otherwise known as All Souls’ Day. I love this time of year and I particularly love the fact that we can spend a whole month praying for the dead. On Monday I said two Masses for the Holy Souls. One can say three, thanks to special papal permission dating back to 1915, which was given because of the high casualties of the First World War. Both Masses in this little parish were well attended, I am glad to say, despite the enveloping fog.
Many of my parishioners come from countries where devotion to the Holy Souls is very strong. Sadly for us, England is different, though it was not always thus. One of the most famous Oxford colleges, All Souls, was founded as a group of clerks who were charged with praying for the dead of the French Wars, in the reign of that most pious king, Henry VI. One of the founders was Archbishop Chichele of Canterbury, whose tomb in Canterbury is so striking. The upper level of the tomb shows the Archbishop fully vested, looking most splendid. The lower level shows a withered cadaver. The message is clear: death is the great leveler. “I was pauper-born,” reads the inscription, “Then to primate raised. Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave.” The Archbishop constructed the tomb before he died, and its purpose is to serve not just as a momento mori, but also as a way of soliciting a prayer for the deceased.
I saw that tomb over thirty years ago, and have not seen it since: but I well remember uttering a prayer for the late Archbishop. He died in 1443: it is good to know that people can still pray for him. I hope people will pray for me too, after I die, and for many years to come.
The Reformation was a revolt against many things, but one thing in particular, the doctrine of Purgatory. Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries, which were communities charged with praying for the dead; he also suppressed the chantries, which were endowments for secular clergy to pray for the dead. There are still chantry chapels in England, but these are places where no Masses are now sung. I find these empty chantries inexpressibly sad, and a poignant reminder of our national apostasy. In the nineteenth century several great Catholics tried to restore this tradition, such as AW Pugin. The greatest modern chantry in the land is that built over the tombs of the Emperor Napoleon III, the Empress Eugenie and the Prince Imperial, at Farnborough.
In trying to eradicate the doctrine of Purgatory, the Protestant reformers took from ordinary people what must have been their greatest comfort. When someone dies, you can no longer do anything for them, and you may very well regret all the things you should have done but failed to do for them while they were alive. If you can pray for their soul, this means that you have the comfort of helping them after their death, which is a huge aid to those who mourn.
The other comfort about Purgatory is this. We have to be perfect to see God, and we know full well we are not. Purgatory means that we can be purified and purged after death, and thus come to see God. We cannot be sure of salvation, but we can be sure of the mercy of God.
In case you want to read a very good account of the theology of Purgatory, which I have not touched on, do read this by Mgr Charles Pope. In the meantime, please redouble your efforts to pray for the Holy Souls. Do what our ancestors did, pray for the living and the dead. Ignore the words of that annoying and opinionated sixth former, Lady Jane Grey, who told the spectators at her execution that they should only pray for her while she lived, and not once she was dead. She was wrong; our ancestors, and hers, were right.
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