Why do Catholic Christians commemorate the dead during the month of November? Abbot Odilo of the great French Abbey of Cluny introduced the festival of All Souls in 998 for members of his own religious order. Later, in the 14th century, All Souls was adopted by Rome for the entire church. It is dedicated to the memory of all the faithful departed. All Saints Day and All Souls Day set the tone for the month of November. All Souls are our family and relatives, our neighbors and friends, our ancestors, that “cloud of witnesses” who accepted the godly realism of their lives, shared it with others already on earth, and continue to do so now before the throne of the Lamb in heaven.
For this reason, they are truly blessed, and give us a reason to hope, to believe, to struggle and to live.The feast of All Souls and the month of November is a source of consolation for each of us. The consoling doctrine of the Communion of Saints allows us to feel ever close to those who have died and gives us much hope in moments of despair and sadness. The holy souls in purgatory see ever more clearly what we intuit from afar. They are already within reach of eternal life, the loving arms of Jesus; but they are not yet closely within his embrace. The sting of death has been removed, but they are still sensing the pain of love which only complete union with Jesus can heal. The healing process is accomplished by the same love which makes the separation momentarily very painful. Our prayers for the faithful departed increase faith and love within us; they draw us to look upon the Son with ever greater longing.
In a very moving, personal reflection on his imminent death 20 years ago this month, in 1996, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago wrote the book The Gift of Peace several weeks before going to God. At the end of his personal testament he wrote:
“Many people have asked me to tell them about heaven and the afterlife. I sometimes smile at the request because I do not know any more than they do. Yet, when one young man asked if I looked forward to being united with God and all those who have gone before me, I made a connection to something I said earlier in this book.
The first time I traveled with my mother and sister to my parents’ homeland of Tonadico di Primiero, in northern Italy, I felt as if I had been there before. After years of looking through my mother’s photo albums, I knew the mountains, the land, the houses, the people. As soon as we entered the valley, I said, “My God, I know this place. I am home.” Somehow I think crossing from this life into eternal life will be similar. I will be home.
Let us spend our earthly pilgrimage filling our minds with the thoughts of heaven, so that when we finally cross over into eternal life, the images we see may not be foreign, startling or strange. Let us pray that we, too, may be able to say: “My God, I know this place. I am home.”