Every year Remembrance Day reminds me of visiting the British War Cemetery in Rome. The British military has an interesting custom: it allows the families of fallen soldiers to choose a short inscription for their tombstone.
Some of those I saw were rather quaint. One read "Fondly remembered by Mum, Dad, and his little dog Pat."
But one epitaph stopped me in my tracks. The tombstone read "One thing I ask, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord."
These are the dying words of Saint Monica to her two sons, one of whom was the future Saint Augustine. She told her children not to worry about where they buried her; she cared only that they prayed at Mass for her soul.
How wise the parents of that dead soldier! I have now forgotten his name, but for many years I prayed for him, and I will pray for him at Mass today.
For Catholics do not just remember the dead; we pray for the dead.
Prayer for the dead is one of the hallmarks of our faith. From its beginning, the Church has offered prayers for the dead, above all the Mass.
Prayer for the dead is motivated by two key Catholic teachings: first, the resurrection of the dead. If we do not believe that the dead will rise, if we do not have hope in the eternal reward, such prayer has no purpose.
Secondly, we pray for the dead because we believe in purgatory.
Purgatory is the name given to the final purification of those who die in God's friendship, but who are not ready yet to enter the joy of heaven. We believe that there is a process that cleanses those who are already saved, but who haven't quite the holiness needed to meet God.
It's not a bad thing to wake up in Purgatory! Father Benedict Groeschel says he looks forward to it!
He explains why by quoting the fine Anglican writer C.S. Lewis, who puts it this way: Imagine arriving at an important party in shabby clothes, without having brushed your teeth for days. If someone at the door gave you the chance to take some time to clean up and change, would you say "oh, no thanks, I'll go straight in and meet the host"?
But since we are members of the Body of Christ, joined in solidarity with one another, we can help one another during this time of purification. We can pray for the souls in purgatory, and they can pray for us.
More to the point: we must pray for the souls in purgatory; it is a duty we have in charity to all, and in justice to those who have done us good.
Last Tuesday was the day of days for praying for our dead and for all the dead, All Souls Day. Mass on All Souls Day was never a holy day of obligation, but churches were usually full. In fact, when I was a young priest, I used to complain that we packed the church for All Souls and left them half-empty on the glorious feast of All Saints the day before.
Well, we have no such problem at Christ the Redeemer: the church was half-empty both days! Even though I offered three Masses on November 2nd, as the rules permit, fewer than one in five of our parishioners attended in total, if you exclude the children who came to Mass with the school.
What does this say? That you are less devout than the parishioners of the past? I don't think so. That you are more busy?—well, that's for sure.
But after thinking about it for a few days, I think it says one thing most of all: we need to shore up one of the foundations of Catholic culture.
Notice I said culture; it's not about faith. There's probably no-one here who doesn't believe in the resurrection of the dead. Only a few have doubts about Purgatory. But we are no longer helped along by customs and a culture that made it easier to do the right thing in past years.
Good Catholics didn't ask "shall we go to Mass on All Souls." They didn't ask one another "Are you going to Mass on All Souls." For the most part they said "Which Mass?"
Again, it was never commanded by the Church; a rule wasn't necessary. A sense of duty led us to Mass on November 2nd.
If the importance of Catholic culture isn't clear to you, just think about poppies. Is there a law about wearing poppies? Is there a by-law that says we must be silent at 11 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month?
Of course not. Our shared values and history direct us to act on a certain way on Remembrance Day… just as they used to do for Catholics on All Souls.
It's time to reclaim what we have lost, to rethink the lost decades when we've been trying too hard to be like everyone else—not standing out by heading to the Cathedral on our lunch hour on All Souls or Ash Wednesday, not arranging our social lives to accommodate great feasts or fasts, not doing things together as members of one Body.
The seven brothers who died sooner than violate the Jewish dietary laws against eating pork had faith; they believed in the resurrection. But they were also made strong by culture. They were united in belief with one another, and with their heroic mother—who, I'm sorry to say, gets cut out of the story this morning. In fact, when she was urged by the King to talk her youngest and last son out of his martyrdom, she took the opportunity to encourage him.
It wasn't only faith that kept those eight true to their beliefs when they were put to the test; they were strengthened also by belonging to a culture, a community of shared convictions.
The entire month of November is a month of prayer for our dead. Let us be united in mind and heart with the Church in heaven, the Church on earth, and the Church in Purgatory as we pray together for the faithful departed.
And may that prayer not only bring them closer to heaven, but us closer to them and stronger in our Catholic beliefs, customs, and culture.