Friday, November 02, 2007

All Saints Day - a meditation

“The only tragedy is not to be Saint” – G.K. Chesterton

To have been a Christian during the Roman persecutions and to have witnessed the heroic deaths of fellow Christians had to have been a soul wrenching experience beyond compare. The Romans had been perfecting the art of human torture for centuries by the time the Christians provided more bodies to be tormented as entertainment.

It is all but impossible for the well-fed and reasonably safe American Christian to even begin to imagine the sufferings of those whose blood ran in rivers from the floor of the Roman Coliseum. It is not hard to imagine however how those who watched their fellow Christians suffer and die would have wanted to honor and remember them in some way.

For those who witnessed the Roman horrors perpetrated with the exacting scientific cruelty on the followers of Christ, the honoring of martyrs was more than just a service in their memory; it was an occasion to draw courage and grace from their heroic death, a death that they who were still alive were almost certain themselves to face.

Thus, from the earliest times, we can find many references honoring those who gave their life for Him who first gave His life for them. Initially, the martyr was honored annually on the day of his or her death. As the persecutions increased in fury, the number of calendar days that could be individually devoted to the memory of a particular martyr quickly ran out. This led to the eventual assigning by the Church of a common day to commemorate all the martyrs lest any be overlooked.

November 1 was first officially dedicated to the memory of All Martyrs (as it was originally called) by Pope Gregory III (731-741) and was officially extended to the whole Church by Pope Gregory IV (827-844) and our Church has kept this solemnity ever since.

Because, here in Guam, All Saints Day is not a Holy Day of obligation as it is in much of the rest of the Catholic world, one may lack the motivation to attend Mass and pay the Saints any special honor. Perhaps if we knew we were going to get hacked to death tomorrow or impaled on a spike and doused with pitch and set aflame to light up Nero’s garden we’d think a bit differently.

It’s hard for us to imagine such horrors sitting in our air-conditioned churches. But we may be yet called upon to suffer such things. May I suggest as preparation a reading of the following two books:

The Martyrs of The Coliseum - Historical Records of the Great Amphitheater of Ancient RomeBy: Rev. A. J. O'Reilly
Here is told both the fascinating history of the Roman Coliseum and the lives and deaths of many famous Roman martyrs, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Prisca, Pope St. Stephen, St. Vitus and companions, St. Marinus, St. Martina, etc. Tells the heroism of the martyrs, the cruelty of the Roman mob, and the incredible miracles God worked on behalf of His saints. Exciting and vivid even today. Impr. 441 pgs, PB

The Age Of Martyrs - Christianity from Diocletian (284) to Constantine (337) By: Abbott Giuseppe Ricciotti
In The Age of Martyrs, the famous Catholic historian Abbot Giuseppe Ricciotti records the epochal events of Roman history from the rise of Diocletian (284) to the death of Constantine the Great (337), a period which witnessed the last and greatest of the 10 persecutions of the Christians by the Roman government. Impr. 305 pgs, PB

Never stop praying for me

“Never stop praying for me."
- Elmer P. Rohr (to his 11 children)

Here on Guam, All Souls Day is probably celebrated with more activity and official recognition than any other place in the world except maybe the Philippines. The customs are quite beautiful: cemeteries are cleaned up, tombs are repainted, special Masses are said, flowers and bouquets are arranged about the plots, and candles light up the cemeteries for the next several nights.

The local government (and some private firms) even grants a holiday so that appropriate honor can be paid to each family’s dead. However, we should continue to remind ourselves that the purpose of All Souls Day is not to just honor the dead but to of course to pray for them.

And, why do we need to pray for them?

It has been said by more than one saint who was gifted with the vision of Purgatory that one moment of pain in its purifying flames is so great that it is unimaginably more painful than all the sufferings combined of a whole lifetime on this earth.

While the Church does not solemnly define the nature of the suffering a soul experiences in purgatory, the Church does declare 1) that souls do suffer in purgatory (The Church Suffering is the official title), and 2) they can do nothing to help themselves.

Because these souls are suffering and because they can do nothing of themselves to lessen their pains or shorten their time of purgation we are bound by charity to pray and even suffer for those souls.

In the past, the general Catholic consciousness of the helpless state of these souls was much more pronounced. My mother and teachers (Catholic school) never missed an opportunity to remind us to “offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory” whenever we kids experienced some sort of pain or discomfort.

It was also quite common to see or hear a death announcement accompanied by the words “please pray for the repose of the soul of…”. Funeral masses and masses for the dead (Requiems) complete with black vestments had a very sober and solemn tone to them, by which we were reminded that our loved one(s) may not yet be in heaven and that we should never cease praying for them.

Today, one not only rarely hears the admonition to offer up the pain from the splinter in your finger for the poor souls, but we quite often hear, even from practicing Catholics, some doubt or question as to the existence of purgatory (“Didn’t Vatican II do away with Purgatory?”).

It is my opinion that most Catholics can be forgiven for thinking such things. While there is usually a long list of “animas” (mass intentions for the souls of the dead) before each Mass, the level of catechetical understanding of the connection between those intentions and the suffering state of Purgatory is questionable.

Death announcements no longer read “please pray for the repose of the soul…” but happily proclaim: “in celebration of his new life”. Eulogies and homilies tend to “beatify” the person. Funeral and memorial masses are celebrated in white vestments and with a positive air.

While white vestments are legitimate and we should certainly celebrate our hope in the eternal happiness of heaven, the odds are that the person who just died, unless he or she was martyred, is probably not there yet, and may in fact be delayed in arriving there by our “he’s in a better place now” attitude..

Minus the sobering reminders of the probable state of the soul of our dearly departed and further confused by the “popular canonizations” (“In celebration of his new life…”) we may in fact neglect to pray for the person’s soul and thus leave him or her to the pains of purgatory longer than may have been the case if we were to have beseeched God with prayers and sufferings as indeed we are commanded to do.

My paternal grandfather, who celebrated the body and blood of Jesus at church in the morning with the same intensity as he celebrated homemade sausage and cider in the cellar at night, admonished his 11 children, long before death was upon him, to “never stop praying” for him after he died.

I continue to be amazed at the “awareness” of former generations as to the reality and sufferings of purgatory as contrasted with what seems to be a complete loss of this sense today.

Of course the Church has not changed its teachings. What it did do was change its practices. And therein lies another testament to the maxim that “what you do speaks so loudly that what you say I cannot hear”. Regardless of what the Catechism and the most orthodox of teachers continue to say, we simply do not “hear” because what we “see” speaks louder. How else to count for the seeming overwhelming belief that purgatory no longer exists and the preponderance of announcements celebrating “his new life” versus “please pray for the repose of the soul…” ?

As a graduate of a rather “liberal” institution in the early 80’s I got sidetracked from my childhood faith and fell in under the popular teaching that if there was a purgatory, it was just a place to stop and get “cleaned up”, and even if there was a Hell there was probably nobody in it.

But that’s not what the Church teaches. There is in fact a hell, a “lake of fire” and there is in fact a Purgatory. As to what actually happens there (in Purgatory) we know nothing other than it is a place of final cleansing.

I suppose we are welcome to believe that it is some sort of cosmic Motel 6 where we can stop and get a shower along the way. But I would much rather trust the accounts of the saints who saw it for themselves even if the Church gives no official credence to those accounts.

For those who don't accept the existence of Purgatory or don't understand it see my other post on Purgatory here. If nothing else it has a good joke about it.

For more information on these accounts see:

Purgatory Explained By: Fr. F. X. Schouppe S.J. You would never dream so much is known about Purgatory. Not only is the basic teaching of the Church given here, but also countless true stories of apparitions and revelations on Purgatory from the lives of St. Margaret Mary, St. Gertrude, St. Bridget of Sweden, the Cure of Ars, St. Lidwina of Schiedam, etc.

Stories about Purgatory & What They Reveal By: An Ursiline of Sligo. This book was written to impress upon its readers many truths about Purgatory -- first, that it exists; second, that the souls detained there suffer long and excruciating pains, and that they desperately need our prayers and sacrifices; and that we ourselves should strive mightily to avoid Purgatory. Confirms in the reader's heart a healthy and holy respect for the sufferings endured by the Holy Souls, such that he will always remember them in his prayers. Impr. 169 pgs, PB

Purgatory By: Fr. Frederick Faber. Is Purgatory almost like Hell? Or is it a place of peace and even joy? The famous Fr. Faber explains both of these classic Catholic views of Purgatory, basing his discussion on Catholic teaching and the revelations of saintly souls, especially St. Catherine of Genoa, in her Treatise on Purgatory. Impr. 85 pgs, PB

Saints Who Raised the DeadTrue Stories of 400 Resurrection Miracles By: Rev. Albert J. Hebert. Stories from the lives of St. Francis Xavier, St. Patrick, St. John Bosco, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Rose of Lima, Bl. Margaret of Castello, etc. Includes the raising of persons who had died, descriptions of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory by temporarily dead persons and an analysis of contemporary "after death" experiences. Many pictures of the saints and their miracles. Fascinating. Formerly published by TAN under the title "Raised from the Dead".

The Life of St. Gemma Galgani By: Venerable Fr. Germanus C.P. St. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) was a mystic, stigmatist, visionary, ecstatic, victim soul, discerner of spirits, seer of hidden things, prophetess, spouse of Christ, zealot for souls and devotee of the Poor Souls in Purgatory. She died at only 25. Her mother was also saintly, and it is beautiful to see how she helped cultivate this lily of purity. See how Gemma made great sacrifices painful to human nature from her tenderest years. Inspiring and edifying! Impr. 349 pgs

Also see the Diary of St. Faustina. Here's a link to her entries on Purgatory.

Tim Rohr
Feast of All Souls, 2009

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