Getting to Know the Holy Souls

It is November here in Southern California, and we are at last getting the kind of weather (save Hurricane Sandy) that the Northeast has had since September — it is autumn at last. While we do not have the blaze of brilliant colours New Englanders enjoy, we do have impossibly blue skies and dream-like golden sunlight that tell the native Angelino that the season has arrived at last. On a late afternoon, as the sun bathes everything in a strange nostalgic atmosphere, it is easy to think of the past — of the things, places, and people that are not here anymore. Indeed, a perfect backdrop for the month of the Holy Souls.

Of course, we enter this mystic month with that much disputed holiday, Halloween. Despite the best efforts of Wiccans and the like to repaganise it — and stores to commercialise it, as shown by Halloween decorations sprouting up in mid-August — such attempts need be no more successful than they have to be with Christmas. Whatever the observance’s roots may be, it has a Catholic history which can be put to good use. Trick or Treating, in particular, may be re-baptised as “souling:” pray as a family for the faithful departed of the houses which gave your children candy, and put short notes asking the same favour in with the candy you distribute. Given the “spooky” nature of the holiday, it is also a good time to remember and review the fact that in addition to saving our souls, the Church’s other mission is keeping off the dark: studying up on or teaching others about holy water’s importance, and that of other such sacramentals as the St. Benedict Medal, as well as the power of the Church’s various exorcisms is quite appropriate. Beyond that, if you want some antidote to the popular views of these things, there are Catholic books on such things as witches, fairies, vampires, werewolves, psychic phenomena, and ghosts, which — while not authoritative — at least attempt with varying success to apply Church teaching to these subjects. But be warned — these volumes are definitely NOT for children, and will give you more shivers than any fiction you have read.

At last the sun dawns on All Saints’ Day. But while we in most of the United States tend to think of it purely in terms of the denizens of Heaven, in New Orleans, Mobile, Biloxi, and elsewhere in the Gulf, Catholics gather in cemeteries to clean family graves and light candles. It is a custom brought over by the French, and is kept up there and in Quebec, Haiti, and wherever the French settled. But similar customs prevail throughout the Catholic world in Europe, Latin America, the Philippines, and so on. Obviously many of these take place on All Souls Day itself, alongside liturgical blessings of the graves and so on. Here in Southern California, Mexican influence brings us the dia de los muertos. But one might well wonder why, in the Francophone world, the practices begin the day before. It may be because in such places (including Louisiana), All Saints Day is a legal holiday, while All Souls is not.

But more significantly, All Souls, like All Saints, has two sets of Vespers, the first occurring the evening of the preceding day. As a result, in the traditional Roman liturgy the second Vespers of All Saints was immediately succeeded by the first of All Souls, the Vespers of the Dead. Dom Gueranger describes this in his usual eloquent manner: “Scarcely has she given the last salute to her glorious sons disappearing in their white robes in the train of the Lamb, when an innumerable crowd of suffering souls surrounds her at the gate of heaven; and to these she at once lends her voice and her heart. The glittering vestments, which reminded her of the snowy garments of the blessed, are changed for the colour of mourning; the ornaments and flowers disappear from the Altar; the organ is hushed; the bells ring a plaintive knell. Without any transition, the Vespers of All Saints’ are followed by the Vespers of the Dead.” His whole account is well worth reading.

But in many places – Brittany, Tyrol, Mexico, and elsewhere — upon their return from Vespers, families lay out food for their departed, believing that they return from beyond to partake. In Quebec and Estonia, for example, it was believed that they linger throughout November. Needless to say, this is a folk belief; but is there anything to it? We know, of course, that those who go to Heaven sometimes return to us; hence the apparitions of Our Lady and the Saints. But what of those who go to Purgatory? Do ghosts indeed walk?

Well, as Sir Shane Leslie points out, during the Middle Ages, theologians taught that the apparitions of the dead might be divided into two groups: non-sentient (the same scene played over and over again without reference to the viewer), and sentient. These latter might be damned souls, demons masquerading as the dead, or else souls returning from Purgatory to ask for prayers and Masses, to give needed information, or else to right wrongs. Because of the danger from the first two possibilities, Catholics are forbidden to attend séances, use Ouija boards, and the like. But the latter present us with some interesting examples.

The practice of Gregorian Masses, for example, comes to us due to the appearance of such a soul to Pope St. Gregory the Great. St. Thomas Aquinas underwent the same experience, and wrote of the theology behind it. I have written elsewhere about priests who returned because of Masses left unsaid; while one of the most famous cases of a layman in West Virginia coming back to demand Masses from the Protestants among whom he had died in a most unpleasant way resulted in the local diocese gaining some prime real estate. During this period, the revenant burned the imprint his hand upon a piece of cloth. So too did Jan Klement Zwespenbauer, who came back to 17th century Bratislava, asking that some money he had stolen be used to purchase a statue of the Virgin Mary for the cathedral; his imprints are to be found in St. Martin’s Cathedral’s treasury today. For that matter, the Church of Sacro Cuore del Suffragio in Rome maintains a small display of such artefacts.

Of the millions in Purgatory, few return to ask such favours; but all need them. This month of the Holy Souls is a good time to begin coming to their aid. Many Saints have spoken of the need to do so, many due to their own experiences. The shrine of Our Lady of Montligeon in France is dedicated to prayer for the Holy Souls, and good Catholics should know about the Sabbatine Privilege attached to the Brown Scapular. Indeed, such titles of the Virgin as “of Pity,” “of Deliverance,” and “of Compassion” all refer to her role as rescuer from Purgatory. At Fatima, she told Lucia that her friend Amelia would be there until the end of time. St. Joseph too is one of their great patrons, as is St. Michael the Archangel. St. Nicholas of Tolentino is considered to be the friend of the Holy Souls par excellence, and his shrine is a center of prayer for their release.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart and to the Precious Blood is also much concerned with the Holy Souls. The “Daily Pilgrimage to Purgatory,” inspired by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, was composed by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (whose church in Rome is Sacro Cuore del Suffragio, founded by Fr. Victor Jouet, one of order’s first members). One may earn indulgences for the Holy Souls; but the Heroic Act of Charity toward them surrenders to the Blessed Virgin on their behalf all one’s meritorious works in this life, and all prayers and Masses offered for one after death. I first read of it in the Confraternity of the Precious Blood’s triple novena manual; but the devotion is promoted by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and was originated by a Theatine.

Add to this mountain of prayer the work of the Purgatorial Societies, of confraternities in Spain, Italy, Latin America, and many other places, and you will see that the Holy Souls are not entirely forgotten. But just as with temporal charities, there is never enough to relieve all of the suffering. Given that you and I, if we fail to become Saints ourselves and yet escape Hell will join them in the dark realm of Purgatory. It would be well to make friends there in advance!

But just where is Purgatory? Well, as with Heaven and Hell, it is both a State and a Place: just as Saints and angels who appear on Earth do not leave Heaven, nor the demons leave Hell, neither do ghosts leave Purgatory. Certain places, like Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Sicily’s Mount Etna, and certain islands in Brittany’s Bay of Souls were seen by locals as entrances thereto. But as the old Yankee told the lost traveller, “you can’t get there from here,” save through the portals of death.

The question might well be asked at this point what other religions believe in this area. Eastern Christians — both Catholic and Orthodox — both pray for the dead and believe in an intermediate state for the imperfect, although their views are often imprecise, and most of the latter firmly reject the name “Purgatory” for that state — primarily because the West uses it. Nevertheless, in place of the Latin Rite’s All Souls Day, Byzantine Rite folk in and out of Communion with the Pope celebrate several “Saturdays of the Souls,” the day of the week commemorating the day Jesus spent in the tomb prior to His resurrection. Anglo-Catholics for the most part accept the doctrine of Purgatory, and founded the Guild of All Souls in 19th-century England: there are independent American and Australian branches.

Outside the bonds of Christianity, prayer for the dead and their commemoration on a particular day or days is well-nigh universal. Thus the Jews keep various Days of Remembrance; Arab Christians and Muslims alike honour the Thursday of the Dead; Chinese Buddhists and Taoists observe the Hungry Ghost Festival, while their Japanese co-religionists celebrate Obon. Differing from each other as they do, most of the Protestant theologies reject prayer for the dead, the only major religion to do so.

But as might be guessed, the desire to pray for and commemorate the Dead, feeling that somehow these prayers can help them, is an innate human instinct. So despite their theology, various Protestant countries found such customs creeping back. Of course, in a few more conservative ones, such as Sweden, Finland, and Estonia, All Souls Day never really disappeared; its hold on the imaginations of simple folk outweighed the fulminations of their preachers.

Enormous numbers of deaths during wartime have also worn down theological opposition to such remembrances. The oceans of blood shed by Prussians during the Napoleonic Wars were the inspiration for Totensonntag, the last Sunday before Advent, which in 1816 Frederick William III of Prussia declared would be kept as a memorial for the deceased of those conflicts. The other German Lutheran churches soon followed suit. The United States had a similar experience with our Civil War, which produced Decoration Day (and also Confederate Memorial Day). But horrible and bloody as those conflicts were, it was left to the First World War, which produced so many corpses, both military and civilian, to generate a cult of the dead sufficiently secular to be acceptable to both Protestants, Catholics, and nonbelievers. Key to this was the interment and continued guarding of various Tombs of Unknown Soldiers; another element emerged in Armistice/Remembrance/Veterans Day and the Two Minute Silence. Thanks to the poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian Lt. Col. John McRae, the red poppy became a symbol of mourning and remembrance in the United States, Great Britain and Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and many other places. The French, however, adopted the blue cornflower for the same purpose. Cenotaphs and War Memorials sprang up across the globe in honour of the war dead — among which those of Edinburgh, Ottawa, Canberra, Kansas City, New Delhi, and Melbourne stand out among hundreds or even thousands. Even Pope Benedict XV made his mark, by reviving the Proper Preface for the Dead that had been pruned from the Mass at the time of the Council of Trent.

And, indeed, that should remind us that while we may participate in such secular rituals of remembrance, they fall far short of the glory and above all the efficacy of the liturgy and private devotions the Church provides us to help the Faithful Departed. They are, after all, our brothers and sisters, not by blood or nationality but by the far tighter link of baptism, of joint membership in the Mystical Body of Christ. If we do not apply ourselves sufficiently to our own sanctification, we may find we join them in the Church Suffering, that third great division of the Communion of Saints.

It is as Dom Gueranger tells us in his commentary of the Vigil of All Saints: “To-morrow the Church will be so overflowing with joy, that she will seem to be already in possession of eternal happiness; but to-day she appears in the garb of penance, confessing that she is still an exile. Let us fast and pray with her; for are not we too pilgrims and strangers in this world, where all things are fleeting and hurry on to death? Year by year, as the great solemnity comes round, it has gathered from among our former companions new saints, who bless our tears and smile upon our songs of hope. Year by year the appointed time draws nearer, when we ourselves, seated at the heavenly banquet, shall receive the homage of those who succeed us, and hold out a helping hand to draw them after us to the home of everlasting happiness. Let us learn, from this very hour, to emancipate our souls, let us keep our hearts free, in the midst of the vain solicitudes and false pleasures of a strange land: the exile has no care but his banishment, no joy but that which gives him a foretaste of his fatherland.” Please God, may we all meet merrily, not in Purgatory, but in Paradise.