I like to believe that titles are important. Not necessarily heraldic titles, though these can be equally amusing and impressive. Titles for books, however, need to capture both the attention of the potential reader and the essence of the narrative or the theme of the text in a way that draws one into them. The same is true, I believe, of the titles given to days in our liturgical calendar. They need to capture our attention and so draw us into the mystery they celebrate.
The title in the Roman Missal for November 2, which day in common exchange is often referred to as “All Souls’ Day,” is actually “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.” I believe there is something significant about the “official” name for this day, which the more familiar, “All Souls,” fails to capture. Some things to note about this day (and the month, which follows it).
Remember, that November 2 lacks a liturgical ranking. It is not a solemnity, a feast, or a memorial in the liturgical calendar, it is simply, “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.” From the beginning, then, this day holds a different type of value than most other days of the year. While the title offers little specificity as to the celebration itself, it is important to note what it does not say.
In minds of many people “All Souls’ Day,” is a day to pray for those departed of our family and friends caught up in Purgatory. Yet, absent from the title is any mention of where the faithful departed “are.” It is not “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed in Purgatory.” The idea behind such a day of prayer is either to implore God for release of those consigned to Purgatory or to encourage the deceased to be ardent in working off the time assigned them in Purgatory. Neither idea is sufficient, as the former can tend toward a perception of a God rather limited in mercy toward and understanding of the humanity God created, while the latter can work itself into a Tetzelian dilemma of works righteousness. The omission of a place where the dead happen to be, may be an overlooked, but important distinction. Three possibilities, and not only one, await us post-temporal existence according our doctrines.
Furthermore, who actually are subjects commemorated on this day? The title states the day commemorates the “faithful departed.” It is not a commemoration of souls, or of souls alone. Such a rendering of the day points to the whole person, holding together body and soul, since our creedal statement professes that the body (with the soul) will be raised on the last day. Labeling November 2, “All Souls’ Day,” unfortunately maintains a body-soul dichotomy inconsistent with the tradition.
Likewise, the subjects of the day are the “faithful” departed, not the unfaithful. Could one who is faithful discover him or herself in Purgatory? Romans 10:9 states, “for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” To be faithful has, in some way, to point to salvation. We human beings love to speak in gradations: you were faithful, just not faithful enough. We believe, thankfully, that this is not true of God.
Perhaps the “unfaithful,” who fear or who are reluctant to embrace such a confession of faith even after death may indeed discover her or himself in the “time-out” of Purgatory…or worse. It begs the question why we do not celebrate a day for the “unfaithful” departed, those who would be more in need of our support and prayers to assist them in making the great transition from this life to the next, particularly if the worse case scenario has come to pass for our beloved dead.
And yet, November 2 commemorates the “faithful departed,” qualified by the adjective “all,” not some, not “many,” but “all.” This day, and the entire month of November, celebrates God’s unfailing love for God’s people in life and in death, wherever they may be. And the day charges us with a responsibility as believers to remember this truth for ourselves. The prayers for the Eucharistic liturgy (or liturgies — three Masses may be presided over by a single presbyter on this day) are divided into the three units of presidential prayers, and each unit expresses a dimension of what we need to remember.
Curiously, the second of the three units, more than the first or third, may hint at a more purgative destiny for the dead. These are only hints, though; in praying these texts we see, as we do in the other two units, that their focus is a more hope-filled promise, rather than thorough-going castigation. The Collect speaks of God as “[the] glory of the faithful and life of the just,” and petitions God to “look mercifully on your departed servants, that just as they professed the mystery of our resurrection, so they may merit to receive the joys of eternal happiness.” In the Prayer over the Offerings, God is asked to “wash away…in the Blood of Christ, the sins of your departed servants.” The prayer further describes God as one who “[purifies] unceasingly by…merciful forgiveness.” The Prayer after Communion “implores” God “for your departed servants” who have been “cleansed by the paschal sacraments.” What cleanses and purifies the dead are not actions or merits of their own, but the work of Christ that continues in and through them, even after death.
The Collect in the first unit of prayers asks for God to deepen both “our faith in your Son, raised from the dead,” and to strengthen “our hope of resurrection for your departed servants.” The prayer connects in a beautiful way the faith and hope of the living with those who have gone before us. The Prayer over the Offerings prays that the deceased “may be taken up into glory” with Christ, “in whose great mystery of love we are all united;” a present reality and not a future-conditional hope. This sentiment is echoed in the Prayer after Communion where the petition asks that the departed “may pass over to a dwelling place of light and peace.”
In the third unit of prayers, both the Collect and the Prayer over the Offerings acknowledge that the deceased have overcome “the mortality of this life,” and have been “set free from the bonds of death.” The work of this transition and transformation in human life is what allows the dead to “gaze eternally” upon God and embrace the promise of eternal life. The Prayer after Communion asks God to bestow mercy on “your departed servants” and then makes the powerful declaration that having been “endowed with the grace of Baptism,” the possibility of “the fullness of eternal joy” opens before them. In this final prayer, the recognition and affirmation of Baptism, not purgation, becomes the crux for everlasting life.
All three units of presidential prayers for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, if prepared and prayed well, reveal that “sure and certain hope” that what God promises will be fulfilled. This hope is the principal characteristic of a believer in the world; and one, which cannot be easily dismissed or downplayed. This hope enables us, especially “in a world torn by strife,” as the first Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs prays, to become a people who “may shine forth as a prophetic sign of unity and concord.” We remember this hope each November 2, throughout the month November, and indeed every time we gather as believers.