In November, as the trees lose their summer vigour after the youthful vibrance of spring, they might appear lifeless and dead. But we know, of course, that nature is only dormant, hibernating, asleep. Fittingly, then, at this time of year our minds turn with the sacred Liturgy to the reality of death, to the dying, and to the dead, particularly the “Holy Souls” in Purgatory.
November is a time for remembering our mortality and the lives of those who have gone before us; this year in particular, the shades of our mortality and of death loom large. But with faith in Christ, we know that although we die and are buried, like those winter trees, the Christian soul is but dormant, asleep, waiting to be awakened at the Second Coming of Christ. As St Paul says: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
Hence, our word ‘cemetery’ comes via Latin from the Greek word koimeterion, which means a dormitory, a place of sleep and rest. In this month, therefore, be sure to undertake the pious and charitable practice of visiting cemeteries and praying for the dead there. Indeed, the Church encourages us to pray for the dead, particularly the souls of the faithful departed in Purgatory (the Holy Souls). So from November 2-8 a plenary indulgence can be gained for them, so long as one visits a cemetery and says a prayer for the dead.
But why should we pray for the dead, and to what effect do we do this? There is, perhaps, no Christian practice other than prayer for the faithful departed which can more concretely express our belief that death is not the end. Rather, we continue to live in Christ.
In 1529, one Simon Fish, however, wrote a tract entitled “Supplication for Beggars” in which, among other things, he contested the doctrine of Purgatory, and so called into question the until-then universal Christian piety of praying for the dead which can be traced to the earliest days of the faith. Within months St Thomas More responded with a two-volume work entitled “The Supplication of Souls”, which affirmed that the souls in Purgatory “have been recommended unto God and eased, helped, and relieved both by the private prayers of good virtuous people, and especially by the daily Masses and other ghostly [ie spiritual] suffrages of priests, religious, and folk of Holy Church”.
St Thomas Aquinas does not explain at length how our prayers help the souls in Purgatory, he just says that they do help. For the souls in Purgatory are being purified from venial sin and worldly attachments – they must thus increase in charity, in love for God. So, by way of an explanation, St Thomas Aquinas appeals to the bond of charity that unites us in the Church, such that our suffrages, which are our prayers, lovingly offered for the dead in Purgatory, can console and offer relief.
As St Thomas More put it: “in surety of salvation [the souls in purgatory are] fellows with angels; [but] in need of relief [they] be yet fellows with [us here on earth]”. Hence the Holy Souls, like us, are somehow comforted and soothed and helped by acts of charity, by the works of love that we do for one another in the communion of the Church. Love brings healing and comfort amid isolation, sorrow, and suffering, which is something we all recognise especially in this time of a pandemic. In this month of the Holy Souls, therefore, let us pray for the dead in the hope that, as St Thomas More said, “We will merrily meet in heaven.”