At the very mention of the words “All Souls Day” I think back especially to memorable funerals at which I have presided over the long years of my priesthood. One that often comes to mind was that of a still-young father of an unusually large family, an uncommonly good man about whom more than one person said, “He was the best man I’ve ever know.” One of his daughters said, “Daddy was so good he didn’t know how good he really was.”
As I looked out at the huge congregation and saw his wife and children in the front pews, all so quiet and dignified in their profound grief, consoling one another with a touch or a compassionate look, a wan smile, praying along with the rest of us — their father’s lifeless body so near to them, I found myself at several points in the Mass wondering how I would describe or label this event. I decided that to call it tragic or sad would tell only part of the whole story and indeed would be misleading.
I knew that in this terrible conflict of life and death, in this forum of finality, we were sharing with the family something more than sorrow. We were of one mind and heart in the absolute conviction that the person we were honoring and lamenting was at that moment more alive than we were. Mourning his departure from our life, we could nonetheless not deny feeling joy and gratitude that he was, as believers so simply put it, with God. We were projecting ourselves, as such intense experiences usually occasion, into that unknowable future in which each of us would in turn make the journey he had just completed.
We Christians do more than muse about the possibility that death is illusory and life is forever. We arrange our lives around that conviction. It provides for us a frame of reference infinitely broader and more useful than any other that can be conceived. It enables us to see beyond failure and defeat and death, to be patient with what we can never change in this life and to view the world at its hateful worst with hope for themselves and for all humankind. This unshakable belief that life is forever allows the followers of Jesus to regard their entire lives – the good and the bad of them – as beautiful because of the inexhaustible potential they contain.
It really forms one’s life, the whole style and direction of it, this faith and hope in an unseen and unprovable eternal future. And we have it on the authority, not of many wise seers, but of the crucified and risen Jesus, whom we regard as the Lord of life.
We believe that we remain united with those who die because death is a passage, not an annihilation. The private evidence of our own individual earthly lives inclines us to suspect that the passage of complementarity we are making together, with its mutual assistance and life sharing, continues even after death. Who is to say that the great God who communicates life to us through the sacramentality of personal relationship here on earth does not do the same in the continuing relationship between the living and the dead?
And so we follow the counsel of the Old Testament that assures us that it is a “holy and wholesome” thought to pray for those who have died.
May they rest in peace. And may we move on in unbroken faith to pass through death and into the everlasting life that awaits us all.