Every year, November 2, the Church remembers in a special way, our departed brethren – late parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, friends, associates, acquaintances, members of our communities, etc., and all others, who, through the mystery of death, have been called to the great beyond!
The Church celebrates the Feast of All Saints on November 1, every year. On November 2, Christians all over the world gather in their various Church cemeteries to pray for the dead. November 2, is a day set aside every year in the Christian world for the Commemoration of our Brothers and Sisters who have preceded us into Eternal Life in Christ Jesus. As a Body of Christ, the Church also uses that occasion to pray, not only for its members but also for all those whose faith is known to God alone, for God to grant eternal salvation to all the dead.
The Commemoration of the Dead on November 2, also known as the Feast of the Holy Souls by Catholics, reminds one of the treasures we have as Christians. It is a treasure, a privilege of being surrounded as a Christian in the immensity of “Communion.” What theologians would call, the communion of the tripartite Church of the One Body of Christ: – communion with the Church triumphant (Saints in heaven); communion with the suffering Church (Souls in Purgatory (according to Catholic teaching); and communion with the militant Church (on earth). ‘What a great blessing and joy of being a Christian!’
In his 1993 Pastoral Letter, entitled, “The Blessings and Joys of Being a Catholic Christian“, Stephen N. Ezeanya (former Catholic Archbishop of Onitsha), discusses the significance of the Feast of the Commemoration of our Departed Brothers and Sisters from an African perspective. Ezeanya, himself, a pioneer African theologian of note, and expert in inculturation theology, sees the African traditional religious belief in the life after death and ancestral communion as one of the ways God in His Divine Wisdom had prepared the forbears of Africa for the reception of the Christian teaching on the Communion of Saints and of the Dead.
In a day like this, November 2, it behoves us as African Christians and as Christians for that matter, to remind ourselves once more, of the significance of this feast for us today. Since the Catholics stand out as the mainstream Christian community that believes strongly on the doctrine of the Holy Souls and that celebrates the Feast in a special way on November 2, our article favours the Catholic position of the ‘Communion of the living with the Dead’ – the ‘holy souls.’
The Feast Teaches Us to Count Our Days
The Feast of Commemoration of the Departed Souls, reminds us of the constant call the Church makes on us to live out our Christian vocation while still on this mortal earth through offering prayers for the dead. For Christians, remembering or mourning the dead is not done with grief like those who have no hope. ‘Rather, we do so in a spirit of faith and hope, knowing that the faithful departed share in the resurrection of Christ and live in communion with us.’
Thus, the theme of the Scriptural Readings used in the Catholic Churches for this Feast of Commemoration of the Dead on November 2, clearly demonstrates that obvious fact about our faith as Christians in the Communion of the Dead and the Resurrection. Death must be thought of as a light that guides us through our lives so that our decisions may always be wise and righteous, leading us to embody the beatitudes. This thought runs through the three readings for the Mass of the Dead the Church has proposed for November 2 ‘Commemoration of the Departed’ Eucharistic Celebration:
THE FIRST READING, taken from the Book of Job (19:1,23-27), is a proclamation of the Faith of the people of Israel in the Resurrection, while the Responsorial Psalm (23:1-6), speaks of a Banquet prepared by God for his friends.
THE SECOND READING, taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (5:5-11), reminds us that Christ has saved us through His Death on the Cross while we were still enemies. The gift of salvation and reconciliation find its full expression in the life of communion with God to which we are called not only here on earth but also forever in heaven.
THE GOSPEL, as usual, shows us the way to live in our daily life the gift of salvation and new life that we have received in Christ.
Already, the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), has an excellent presentation of the Church’s teaching on the subject on what it believes are the Last Things (listing ‘Final Purification, or Purgatory’ as one of them), which is found in Article 12 of the Creed: “I BELIEVE IN LIFE EVERLASTING.”
In brief, CCC (nos. 1020-1064), presents the following as the Last Things at the end of our earthly existence: Death, Heaven, Final Purification, or Purgatory, Hell, Last Judgement and the Hope of the New Heaven and the New Earth.
According to the CCC, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (CCC n. 1030).
The Church’s teaching on purgatory expresses the belief that those who are basically just at the time of death but still burdened with temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven must undergo ‘purgation’ after death. These departed ones can be aided by the prayers and good works of those living on earth. This state of purgation is understood to be an intermediate condition between individual death and entrance into heaven.
The Church gives the name “Purgatory” to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.
This teaching is based also on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures. For instance, in the 2Maccabees (12:38-46), which speaks of prayer for those who have fallen in battle: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2Macc 12:46). In this regard, also three New Testament texts have been commonly cited: Matthew 5:26; 12:32; and 1Corinthians 3:11-15. While the doctrine may not be taught directly in these texts, however, some support may be found in them since they allow for the possibility that some sins are forgiven in this world and some in the next.
History provides abundant evidence for the Christian practice of praying for the dead from the earliest centuries. In this respect also, the Church commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.
In all, however, the practice is seen by many to imply a belief in the need for purgation after death. Precisely how and where this purgation was to take place has occupied theologians down the centuries. In our time, however, Cardinal Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) says that, “it is impossible to describe the moment of this encounter in temporal categories. It is neither long nor short in terms of physical time. Its true measure is to be taken in terms of the depth of the resistance in the human person that must be broken down or “burned” away in the encounter with the divine.”
However, modern theological interpretations see purgation in terms of maturation more than in terms of paying a debt. In this sense, they are more in harmony with the Eastern tradition than with the late medieval theology of the West.
The Treasures of Our ‘Communion with the Dead’
The 1993 Pastoral Letter “The Blessings and Joys of Being a Catholic Christian” of late Archbishop Stephen, mentioned at the beginning of this article, is a good material for this topic. In the Pastoral Letter, the saintly Archbishop reminds us the reasons, why as Christians, we should always cherish and nourish our faith. Since the pastoral letter was addressed to Catholic Christians in particular, we shall respect it in this write, while at the same time indicating the implications for all Christians and peoples of faith.
Archbishop Ezeanya’s Pastoral Letter, “The Blessings and Joys of Being a Catholic Christian“, is as relevant today as ever. It is a ‘must read’ for all Christians, irrespective of one’s denomination. It has an important message for everybody, especially for ‘weak’ African Christians who have fallen victims of the ‘charlatan’ pastors. The so-called pastors or prophets of ‘healing and miracle centres’, who often manipulate African traditional religiosity to lead astray or even, dupe those who frequent their centres. The Pastoral Letter is also an important text for an authentic inculturation of Christian teaching of Communion of the Saints and of the Dead in an African cultural and religious milieu.
As a summary, and in reference to the feast of the day, November 2, it suffices to mention the following as parts of the treasures we share for being Christians. What Archbishop Ezeanya calls, “The Blessings and Joys of Being a Catholic Christian.”
Taking the Catholic Church as his context, Archbishop Ezeanya shares the following points as reasons why Christians should cherish, love and be proud of their faith:
1. As Catholic Christian, one belongs to the Communion of Saints. In the Apostles Creed, we say: “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” (On November 1, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints).
2. As Catholic Christian, One is in Communion with Souls in Purgatory. (On November 2, we celebrate the Feast of the Commemoration of the Dead):
Again, as noted already, we know from the teaching of the Church that souls in purgatory suffer greatly and that they are unable to help themselves. Therefore, the only help they can get for terminating or at least, lessening their suffering, can only come from us. This is one of the great advantages of the Communion of Saints.
But we must also remember that those “holy souls”, as we call them, are already special friends of God. They deeply love God and are burning with desire to reach heaven as soon as they have completed their term of suffering. Moreover, as members of the Church suffering, and as special friends of God, the souls in purgatory can intercede for us here on earth and so, we are encouraged to invoke their aid.
This means in effect that we have a great army of our departed brothers and sisters praying for our sanctification and salvation – another great blessing of belonging to the Communion of Saints.
Furthermore, we have confidence that if we find ourselves in purgatory after death, those on earth will be praying for us.
3. Finally, as Catholic Christians, we are in communion with one another: ‘Christ’s faithful on earth are in communion with one another by the fact that they profess the same faith, obey the same authority and above all, assist each other with their prayers and good works.’
This universal sense of oneness in Christ is one of the most impressive and attractive aspects of the Catholic Church. By this, every Catholic feels at home wherever he finds himself/herself in the midst of his brother/sister Catholics in any part of the world. This Christian solidarity, this team-spirit shows itself most in the prayers for one another especially through the Holy Mass, funerals and flourishing societies, associations, lay movements in the Church.
Playing a leading role in this is Holy Father the Pope, who, like St. Paul is always saying: “there is my daily preoccupation: my anxiety for all the Churches. When any man is made to fall, I am tortured.” (2 Cor 11:28-29). This is as a result of the mandate he received from Christ: “feed my sheep, feed my lambs.” (cf. John 21:15-16).
And so, it is clear that the members of the whole body of Christ on earth are in communion with one another. ‘What a great blessing! What a source of joy!’ (See, S.N. Ezeanya, “Following Christ More Closely” – Being a Collection of Pastoral Letters 1986-1993. See specifically, “The Blessings and Joys of Being a Catholic Christian” – 1993 Pastoral Letter, Trinitas Publications, Onitsha 1994, 221ff).
Moreover, Vatican Council II Constitution on the Church in the Modern World “Gaudium et Spes“, extends the solidarity of the Church with the whole human family:
“The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men and women, men and women who, united in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, press onwards towards the Kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all men and women. That is why Christians cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history.” (GS 1).
All these, in one way or the other, form part of the Christian vision of reality and the mystery of the Church, which we often hear explained theologically by scholars with the terminology of ‘tripartite church’: Church triumphant (Saints in heaven); Church suffering (Holy Souls in Purgatory); and Church militant (the faithful on earth).
During liturgical act or celebration like that of the “Commemoration of All the Departed” on November 2, the tripartite Church – the Saints in heaven, the Holy Souls in Purgatory, and the militant Church on earth, celebrate as one family, though mystically. The ‘three’, all constitute members of the One Body of Christ, the Church, in rendering Praise, Thanksgiving, and Supplications to God Almighty through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
These are the treasures – the blessings and joys of being a Christian, which the Feast of Commemoration of the Holy Souls on November 2, reminds us, and in a special way, celebrates in liturgy and in the prayers of the Church. ‘What a privileged people we are as Christians to share in such a communion of the living with the Saints and of the Dead in Christ!
The African Contextualization
At this juncture, it serves a good purpose to add that the Church’s teaching on Communion of Saints and of the Dead, makes a special appeal to the African people, whose ancestors were followers of African Traditional Religion (ATR).
In ATR, or rather in African traditional society or religious set-up, the ancestral veneration is one of its major essential elements for there is a strong belief in life after death. The traditional African people believe that the living and the dead who have died a good death are in regular and constant communion with one another. They believe also that those who have died a “bad death” (and by this they mean death resulting from a crime or an abomination especially against the mother-earth, or against the traditions of moral norms ordained by the ancestors for the well-being of the community, the judge of human morality), are lost for ever and nobody likes to have anything to do with them.
But even when a person dies well, he/she does not at once enter into the place of happiness to enjoy the company of his/her departed ancestors (ancestral communion). There are some prayers and rituals which must be performed by the relatives to qualify and equip him/her for acceptance into the company of the departed. Those prayers and offerings of different kinds, have to be made on his behalf while he waits somewhere, as homeless wanderer until the ceremonies are performed.
In ATR, it is believed that until the appropriate ceremony (what some African societies call “second burial), has been observed, they (spirits of the dead), “would continue to haunt this world, wandering at will in the houses, compounds and farms, invisible yet ever present and taking a distinct and unremitting interest in the affairs of the individual and the community with which they associated in life.” It is only after the appropriate rites of burial have been completed the “spirits” depart to their appointed place of rest in peace.
It is important to note that those wandering spirits need the prayers, the spiritual help of the living to enable them qualify to enter into life. Of their own accord, they cannot help themselves. Explaining further this fact, Ezeanya says that this is why according to the belief of Africans of the traditional religion, when the living relatives fail to discharge their obligations towards the dead awaiting for help, the spirits get impatient and come back to urge the living to do their duty by causing mishap like accidental deaths, great misfortunes, drowning in the river or falling from the tree. When such is discovered the living hurry up to perform the necessary rituals to open the gates of life for them to join the ancestors.
Taking all these things together, one easily sees that the living among Africans of ATR are in communion with one another in many ways, and in communion with the dead who have not reached home (ancestral communion), and also in communion with those already resting in happiness (with the ancestors) and from whom they get benefits (ancestral mediation and protection) for the well-being of their families, communities, villages, towns, etc.
This very strong traditional religious set-up, at the heart of which is ancestral veneration (not worship as some foreign authors wrongly interpreted it), was what Christianity found in most of the African societies when it came. It constituted a very helpful preparation by Providence for the understanding and appreciating the Church’s teaching of the “Communion of Saints” in the African context.
This partially explains why most African Christians, find it relatively easy to understand and appreciate this crucial teaching – the Communion of the living with the Saints and the Dead. And why African Catholic Christians, in particular, can easily understand the existing communion between the saints in heaven, the souls in purgatory and the faithful on earth.
Many followers of ATR in those early days of missionary evangelization of Africa, were ‘converted’ to Christianity, for example, by the zeal, the fervour and the strong sociable spirit with which the Church perform funeral ceremonies for their dead, including those who do not have children or a strong body of well-to-do relatives to perform funeral rites for them in traditional religious way.
Moreover, as Christians, death is not the end of life. We are called to life eternal, participation in the inner life of the Triune God through Christ. That is why we remember and pray seriously for the salvation of our loved ones and all others who have gone before us to meet the Lord.
Even though we may be thinking seriously about our dead ones, we have no reason to fear them. Neither have we any reason to fear being haunted by the dead. Unless, however, one was not at peace with the dead person. In that case, the individual has to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confess his/her evil acts, receive sacramental grace so as to be ritually cleansed in the Christian way. After that, there is nothing to be afraid of again as far as that matter is concerned.
The Church’s teaching on Communion of Saints and of the Dead is a challenge to those weak African Christians. That is, those Christians, who at moment of trials and difficulties in life, have abandoned the Church to follow the ‘charlatan pastors and prophets’ of the so-called “healing and miracle centres” that abound in every nook and corner of African cities and towns nowadays.
This phenomenon is also a challenge to the Church in Africa towards intensifying its teaching of authentic Christian Doctrines on those issues that disturb the poor masses greatly these days. The situation also challenges the Church to support and encourage the on-going efforts towards authentic inculturation of the Gospel in the continent. Without proper inculturation of the Christian message in African culture and worldview, the faith of the people will continue to remain superficial and shallow.
All these show why as Christians, we are invited to cherish and consider the Church’s teaching of the Communion of Saints and of the Dead with the living as a great blessing which we enjoy as members of the Church of Christ on earth. Deepening the faith of African Christians on this aspect of Christian Doctrine through catechesis and authentic inculturation is as cogent today as ever!
Thus, this November 2, and all through the month, as we pray for our departed brothers and sisters, we ask the Lord to strengthen our faith in the Resurrection.
Happy Feast of the Holy Souls.
Francis Anekwe Oborji is a Roman Catholic Priest. He lives in Rome where he is a Professor of missiology (mission theology) in a Pontifical University. He runs a column on The Trent. He can be reached by email HERE.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.