The Importance of All Souls

Yesterday, at a Mass celebrating the Solemnity of All Saints, the priest's homily was about how All Saints was like Thanksgiving; we're all gathered around a table for a feast—our chatty aunt, our boisterous grandpa, our crazy grandma who drinks a little too much. And all those relatives who have died—our aunts and uncles, our grandmas and grandpas, some of our siblings, and maybe children—are saints. The feast is to celebrate all of them, not 'big name' saints like Augustine, Aquinas, and Clare.

I was willing to give the priest the benefit of the doubt when he said this, because he could mean that all those who have passed away and are now in Heaven are saints... but then he said further: "We're all more good than bad," and proceeded to talk about how he loves eulogies in funeral liturgies (which he says became a norm after Vatican II) because they show all the good things people did in life. He also said he's glad priests don't wear black for funerals anymore (they can, of course, but very few do), because black is so depressing. Priests wear white because they celebrate the resurrection of the dead!

Get out of Hell Free card
This is not how faith works.

What an incredible thing to hear! I might as well stop going to Mass, then, because I generally try to do good things, and worship of God is just one of many good things I could be doing, right? Wrong. Oh, so wrong.

You see, the priest has fallen prey to the belief in the fundamental option and the false outcome of its conclusion: We generally choose to either try to do good and follow God, or not. If we try to choose the good, it doesn't really matter what we do, because God will be all smiles and hugs when we die and visit him at the pearly gates.

Here's the problem: There are most certainly things that can cause us to not get to Heaven, even if we generally (or almost always) do good things. We call those things mortal sins: murder, adultery, masturbation, gluttony, not making holy the Lord's day, etc. When a person commits a mortal sin, that person must go to confession or the person risks losing Heaven!

And another problem: most people don't go straight to Heaven after dying. There's a saying, "there are two people lying at a Funeral—one in the coffin, and one at the pulpit." One good reason for not having a eulogy in the actual Funeral liturgy is that it tends to sanctify the person. Most people, believe it or not, are not perfect, and are not going to Heaven straightaway. They're going to need to spend some time in purgatory purifying themselves of all the effects of their sins before they can make it to Heaven. Imagine a child playing in mud and dirt for an afternoon—before coming to dinner with the rest of his family, he'll need to wash up; the more dirt, the longer the washing. Purgatory's like that.

Also, if one believes that all people who die end up in Heaven, what's the point of today's feast, All Souls? Why would we celebrate All Saints one day and All Souls the next? We're not celebrating our own souls—we're celebrating and praying for the souls of the faithful departed; the souls of our aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, brothers and sisters who have passed away before us. These souls are in need of our prayer, for many are not yet in Heaven!

We can't be sure of anyone's sanctity, so we default to praying for all those who have passed away and are not canonized—even those who we feel lived the holiest of holy lives here on earth! Yes, including your saintly grandmother who prayed the rosary (all the mysteries) every day. Yes, including your uncle who ministered to the poor every week. Yes, including the priest or nun who seemed to be on his or her knees praying more than anyone else you know.

This anecdote (from an article on eulogies in Catholic funeral liturgies) about Mother Teresa illustrates the point that the holiest people are most acutely aware of the fact that they are not holy enough to enter Heaven (yet):

Another joke tells of the man who died at the same time as Mother Teresa of Calcutta and found himself a few places behind her at the Pearly Gates. He is complacent that he will be admitted until he hears Saint Peter exclaim sternly, "But Teresa, you could have done a lot more."

Mother Teresa herself would have insisted that she could have done a lot more. It is one of the characteristics of saints that they are acutely aware of their sins, of how completely they depend on God's mercy, of how little they "deserve" at God's hands. But modern sensibilities have subtly changed hope—that a merciful God will grant me salvation—into arrogant certainty.

We are not certain that our deceased relatives are in Heaven, so we pray for them on this great feast, the feast of All Souls. We celebrate the lives of the saints on November 1st, and hope for the sanctification of others in the communion of the faithful on November 2nd.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.