Friday, November 03, 2006

Saints, Souls, and the Days of the Dead

I was born into a Catholic family, baptized, educated, and raised Catholic – pre-Vatican II; even so, I’ve never been a very good Catholic, or at this point a practicing Catholic. I have, however, been fascinated by the joys and miseries of Catholicism my entire life.

Catholicism is deeply rooted in the primitive with unrivaled spectacles of music, language, setting, costumes, and props painstakingly designed to draw the worshipper into the mysteries of the faith; the central mystery being a God born of and as human flesh, tortured and executed as a redemptive act, and then released from the dead. Fundamental to Catholicism/Christianity is Jesus’s blood-sacrifice. Catholics re-enact it every hour of the day, somewhere in the world.

You would think that would be enough, but the church fathers have spent thousands of years broadening a vision of death and the afterlife to include all the departed faithful who act as spiritual watchdogs and helpmates of the living through the “communion of saints.” According to the Catholic Encyclopedia the communion of saints is: “the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head, and in a constant interchange of supernatural offices.” In short, the Communion of Saints is all the Catholic faithful, living and dead, somehow conspiring together.

If you’re a Catholic, you may not see dead people, but they see you; and lest we forget, November 1st and 2nd are the days when all eyes turn earthward.

November 1st is “All Saints’ Day,” and again, according to the Encyclopedia, “is instituted to honour all the saints, known and unknown…” That the Church admits the existence of unknown saints is news to me. I always thought we were fixed in who is and isn’t a saint, with changes in the calendar and rank, but not in fact. (Notice I wrote, “we,” thus giving weight to the expression, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” or as my friend Kathy told me, “Ah, Richard, it’s the priest you’ll be asking for on your death bed.”) That “unknown,” part is a great way for the Church to get by in her lack of a heavenly census taker, and to hedge her bets until the Last Judgment. Anyway, the saints are in heaven, and don’t need our help though they are praised in their naming, and will help us if asked.

All Saints’ Day is a “Holy Day of Obligation,” meaning, a Catholic is obliged to go to Mass on that day, and the Litany of the Saints is an All Saints’ Day ritual. The litany has always been, for me, one of the high points of Catholic liturgy. It’s a dark piece of magic that, in a rhythmic, and sometimes musical, call and response, asks God to have mercy on us, the heavenly dead (the saints) to pray for us, and in its orthodox form for God to protect us from a list of evils ranging from sin to plague, famine, and war. In its simplest form the cantor asks God’s mercy and then calls the name of a saint. After each name the congregants respond, “Pray for us.” It’s a simple, rhythmic, hypnotic, and powerful seance, and you’d think the heavens would open to flood the earth with the beneficence of divine light. What actually happens is something more earthbound-profound. At the end of the litany the participants are held in a breathless moment when anything may be possible. Good ju-ju.

Of late, more progressive congregations have taken to adding historic figures who may not have even been Catholic – though they are dead. Thus Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is added to the litany, as is the Mahatma Gandhi; but I’ve yet to hear of Jack Kerouac being included, Catholic though he was, and definitely a martyr to something. I think the inclusions are a good practice because it opens the doors to any of our favorite relatives but it may be lost on the progressives whose agendas are way beyond canonizing their family members. As for conservatives, I can imagine some congregations adding Ronald Reagan to the list, if they weren’t so conservative - kind of a double-bind there.

Other Christian denominations celebrate All Saints’ Day, but none, that I know of, with the zest of the Catholics.

I can't get the link to work, but the text can be found at:

The departed we can help get our attention on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day. Let’s go back to the Encyclopedia which is fantastic enough without me trying to paraphrase: “The theological basis for the feast is the doctrine that the souls which, on departing from the body, are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, are debarred from the Beatific Vision, and that the faithful on earth can help them by prayers, almsdeeds and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass.”

All Souls probably includes all my departed relatives, (except for my uncle, Fr. Louie, and Busia, my grandmother; both of whom the family canonized without permission from the Pope) but none of my friends. My friends have either united with the “All,” gone straight to hell, or returned for another round – though they’ve yet to drop by for coffee, and I wish they would.

All Souls’ Day is not a Holy Day of Obligation. It should be, but praying for a sinner is not as exalted as worshipping before the Throne, and has often felt more an afterthought, or a dirty little secret. Dead sinners do get more attention than living sinners. When have you ever heard a cleric ask for prayers for the murderers, adulterers, or pedophiles amongst us?

The big problem with All Saints’ and All Souls’ is that you don’t get onto the list unless you were “faithfully departed.” It’s that joke where the departed soul gets a tour of all the rooms in the heavenly mansion – Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, etc. – but when shown the Catholic room is asked to keep quiet because the Catholics think they’re the only one’s there.

Beautifully mixed in these saints’ and souls’ days is the Mexican “Dias de la Muerte,” the Day of the Dead, an Aztec feast that the Catholics have only partially co-opted. On the Day of the Dead nobody gets short shrifted for their earthly peccadilloes and everyone is welcome to the fiesta. It’s a day of celebration and hi-jinks marked with the mockery of death and the over-riding belief that death is not the end. Maybe even the gates of hell get unlocked and the damned are released on their own recognizance for 24 hours. Short of absolute forgiveness, that would be radical Christian charity.

All Saints’, All Souls’, and the Day of the Dead are rehearsals for the end of days when all the faithful departed will be reunited, and the rest of us will be judged for eternity. That is to say the universe will cease to exist except as the divided realms of heaven and hell. All the Saints and Souls will be one happy family, while the rest of us will be either undergoing some exquisite physical tortures, or more likely the metaphysical torture of being deprived the presence of the Lord.

You’d think that millennia of prayers would lead to a brighter end, and it’s sad that thousands of years of poetry, music, architecture, silk, satin, and gold leave us, finally, banished and bereft.

If nothing changes there’s no reason to practice.


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