A parent’s perspective
There’s something I like about November, tucked in between the beauty and colour of October and the hustle and bustle of December. November reminds me of the inevitability of death as the last few withered leaves lose their fragile hold on the branches, clinging on for one last flash of glory.
November is also the month where we remember all of those who have moved on from this life, the faithful departed and the souls in Purgatory. I think there may be a little less focus in recent times on the whole concept of the Communion of Saints which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church means that “the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them especially the Eucharistic Sacrifice”.
There is also mention of giving alms, gaining indulgences and doing works of penance. I love thinking about the fact that we are still very much connected to those who have died and that there is still an opportunity to help them and to demonstrate our solidarity and love.
When I was a child, I lived very near a graveyard. I used to love strolling around on a summer’s day, stopping at one grave or another to admire the flowers and to read the details about the different people who had died. My own mother and father are now buried there.
This year I was determined to continue with the Catholic tradition of striving to gain indulgences for those who have died by visiting a cemetery and praying for the dead between November 1 and 8.
I think many Catholics may not even know what an indulgence is. It’s the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. These indulgences are applicable to the Holy Souls; they’ve often been misunderstood or dismissed as bordering on superstitious. However, explained in simple terms, it’s easy enough to understand that even if our sins are forgiven, we may not have fully atoned for past transgressions.
I think children understand this if you present an example like one I came across on an internet blog, Life Teen, which suggests that if you broke your friend’s iPhone screen, they might forgive you but would still expect you to pay for the phone repair.
C.S. Lewis described Purgatory as a divine “washroom” which sounds a little funny. In the Catechism, Purgatory is described as “a final purification” for all those who die in God’s grace and mercy but without the necessary holiness to enter the eternal joy of heaven.
I find it fascinating but comforting to realise that if I find myself in Purgatory after my death, my loved ones can still continue to assist me spiritually. It’s the reason that my husband and I piled the children into the car every evening at the beginning of the month of November to drive to a variety of graveyards.
I’m sure we must have looked a little suspect meandering down country lanes and tumbling out of the car, at 11pm some nights, making our way through the shadows to grave-sides lit by the car headlights.
Familiar with spooky Halloween tales, the children were a little jumpy but were reassured that there was nothing to fear. We were there to gain our indulgences and the short journey and the bit of extra effort required added to the sense of the importance of remembering and praying for those who have died.
An aunt of mine passed away recently. She was my mother’s sister and had moved to Edinburgh as a young woman. To travel to her funeral, some family members, including my 29-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, travelled by car and ferry to Scotland, crossing the country to arrive at her family home.
There was something about that road trip, to join in prayers for the eternal rest of my aunt, that was both powerful and therapeutic.
The physical act of travelling to a funeral reminded me of the last loving deed a Christian can carry out for their loved ones. My late mother was an amazing woman with a tremendous love for God and for her faith but she urged me, my father and my brother and sisters not to neglect to pray for her soul after she died.
To our family she was the best wife and mother in the world but she didn’t want any presumption of instant access to heaven or to be eulogised for her sanctity.
Our prayers after her death and our father’s death some years later were the last loving acts our family could participate in. Ireland is well known for the way we deal with death and our openness to talking about it.
It would be sad if we focused too much on “the good send off” but failed to remember to pray for our departed brothers and sisters who still continue to be members of the Communion of Saints.
My father used to say “You pray for me and I’ll pray for you”.
This assistance through the power of prayer, especially during the Mass, which is the highest and most effective form of prayer in the Church, shouldn’t end just because those we care about have died and is a tradition that we should continue with our own children and grandchildren.