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Make All Souls Day a Holy Day of Obligation, too


Adam Jones | CC BY-SA 2.0

David Mills - published on 11/05/17

The Mass of All Souls makes obvious the contrast between the way the world makes us suffer and what God has done with that suffering.

If I were in charge, I think I’d made All Souls a holy day of obligation along with All Saints. The celebration of the beloved dead tells Catholics what we need to hear and remember and tells the world what the Church offers them. It makes the Gospel, the good news, concrete and visible for everyone in a way few other Masses do.

I thought of this after Mass last night. We heard the names of 66 people who died this year, while their pictures appeared on the screen at the front to the left of the altar. From where I sat, I saw above the screen the crowned head of Mary from the statue at her altar, as if she were watching over them.

The names of the 66

I only knew a few of the departed. Judging from their ages, I suspect most had been in nursing homes, maybe for decades. The oldest was 103, with her sister also dying this year, at 102. The next oldest was 98. The youngest was 31. Last year there were a few infants and it was heartbreaking to see the parents walk up to get their child’s candle. This year, thank God, none.

The families supply most of the pictures. No one supplies a casual shot. One woman, who died at 41, was pictured in her wedding gown. Some of the men were shown in their World War II uniforms. A few, men and women both, had dashing black-and-white photos from the 1930s and 40s. One man looked very Cary Grantish. At least 50 of the 66 had Italian names.

Sixty-one were older than me, only two within a few years of my age. I’ve gotten old enough that appearing on the screen is more a possibility than it was before. My sister died last year, three years younger than I am now. I won’t pretend not to look at the birth dates as the pictures appear.

Just before the final blessing, our pastor stopped and said that his beloved aunt and godmother had been one of those pictured. I wish I could remember what he said. He talked about how much she had meant to him his whole life and then said that we need each other, that we have to be there for each other, as his Aunt Jo had been for him. We still need each other even after they die. The dead are still there for us and we can be there for them.

After Mass I lit a candle for my sister at the shrine with the Pieta.

A little thing we can do for the dead

At St. Joseph’s, All Souls tends to be a feast for those who’ve lost someone in the last year. I go every year anyway, because it’s a little thing I can do for the dead. I’m paying my respects, as my old-fashioned unchurched grandfather would put it.

And also because it’s comforting. Though it commemorates loss, the All Souls Mass doesn’t feel gloomy. It’s the Mass.

Yes, this Mass reminds that we all die. It tells us that this world is not all there is. It declares that those we love have passed into a greater world, and yet they stay connected to us still in the world. Death sucks, yes, and some of those around me have tears in their eyes, and I did as I thought about my sister, and yet we and our dead remain in God’s firm grasp.

They can do something for us and we for them. They pray for us and we pray for them, and God hears those prayers. And together we look forward to the world in which “He will wipe away every tear and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.”

The Mass makes it obvious

The Mass of All Souls makes obvious the contrast between the way the world makes us suffer and what God has done with that suffering and will do with it. It doesn’t make light of death, as so much Christian and secular piety does. The world doesn’t talk about this much because it wants us completely wrapped up in the present. If you are like me, the world often succeeds. But every year, there’s the Mass of All Souls and those faces on the screen.

That’s why I think I’d make All Souls a holy day of obligation. It tells us something we need to know but too rarely remember. We will die, yet in Christ we will live.

David tells the story of his sister Karen’s last day and night here here.

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