Dear Friends in Christ – within and beyond the Diocese of Lancaster!
Welcome to this week’s Bishop’s Blog!
In the Catholic world the practice of remembering the dead and praying to God for them is widespread. This is particularly true on the 2nd November, All Souls Day, and throughout this month.
A very human explanation for this is the duty and debt we owe to those who have gone before us, whose goodness and example we recall with gratitude. The moving services of Remembrance which take place at cenotaphs and war memorials in many places at this time, focus on the gratitude due to our armed forces who fought on our behalf.
Our Catholic tradition has, moreover, long recognised the truth that our prayers, devotions and Masses offered for the dead can assist them on their way to God. Today our sense and appreciation of Purgatory has weakened, and many now find it difficult to square this state of ‘punishment’, however temporal, with the notion of a loving, and all-forgiving merciful God.
Yet when we try to rationalise what happens in the afterlife or to comprehend the eternal God we quickly discover our human limitations, and ultimately our inability to fully understand things which surpass our intellect.
In a celebrated passage in his Confessions, (written around 400AD) St. Augustine of Hippo movingly describes the death of his mother Monica in Ostia as they were about to return home to North Africa. In her last words to her family, Monica enjoined them not to be concerned about where her body would be laid to rest.
The only thing she asked was that they remember her at the altar of the Lord, wherever they may be. Saint Monica’s request shows how the tradition of praying for the dead was already firmly established in the early Church.
The visits to cemeteries, with the laying of flowers and lighting of candles, which take place this month in so many countries speak of what theologians call “sensus fidelium”, that deeper appreciation of the truths of the faith on the part of ordinary believers inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the conviction that the dead should be remembered and prayed for.
The prophet Isaiah was overwhelmed with his experience of the holiness of God in the Jerusalem Temple (Is.6), and the chorus of the angels he heard singing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts’. The young prophet, we read, was aghast and became acutely aware of his own sinfulness in the presence of the all-holy God.
One simple explanation given for the existence of Purgatory was the need of souls to be purified of all fault and traces of sin before passing finally into the presence of the triune God and his holy angels.
What should sustain and reassure us in this month as we pray for our deceased brothers and sisters is both our natural inclination not to forget them, and the Church’s practice and long conviction that, in the words of the book of Maccabees, ‘It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be released from their sins’ (2Macc.12:45).
Finally, we do believe that our prayers always reach the merciful ears of the Lord, and in ways we do not understand, they benefit those we have known and loved on this earth, and have now made the journey into eternity.
Until next week, may God bless you all,
+Michael G Campbell OSA
Bishop of Lancaster