In Catholic parishes, the sacraments give rhythm to our lives, along with the days, weeks, months, and years of the liturgical calendar. Yet, even as the liturgical calendar punctuates our daily lives, the forward movement of time can feel deeply impersonal. Parish life, however, offers ways of accompanying universal experiences—even ones as complicated as death and grief—with tender rituals and personal touches. Throughout the month of November, we focus on death and grief as common human experiences through which God and parish companion us. Ministers and fellow parishioners accompany each other through moments that matter, even when those moments are hard.
I coordinate my parish’s funeral care, and each year, come October, I phone the families who have experienced the loss of a loved one and invite them to come to our parish’s All Souls Day liturgies on November 2. The parish’s annual ritual includes reading the names of the parishioners who have died over the past year while their family members process forward and present purple candles in their memory. At the Mass each year are persons offering candles in memory of elderly parents; others pray for children who died tragically; others recall people who died from illness, suicide, accidents, and people who died peacefully. In a Mass which focuses on death, the fragility of life crowds the mind, perhaps especially in a year in which a pandemic has taken the lives of so many.
For people living with grief, the Mass of All the Faithful Departed is not easy. It is, in fact, downright painful for most. The wound of loss which is always present in a person’s life is brought to the surface again. It hurts to recall the absence of a person we love. But where else can we go?
I am deeply moved each year by the persons who bravely arrive at church to experience and directly face the grief which could otherwise be ignored or diluted by busyness. It seems that in November we fill our parishes with crying grievers, people whose hearts feel empty. The truth of the matter, however, is that everyone mourns. Everyone is mourning. How special that in the final weeks of the liturgical year Catholics take special note of that fact and give a space and time in which to express it.
The mourners who arrive at church in November encounter consistent reminders of their loss. Many parishes read the names of the dead aloud, or display books with the names of the deceased. Parishes like mine that are home to many Hispanic Catholics set up ofrendas (altars) on which people place photos of dead loved ones and objects they loved surrounded by bright fabrics, flowers, and sugar skulls. While an entire month focused on death may seem macabre to some, when the faithful live their particular grief in a community, something special occurs. The depth of their pain is not lessened, but the balm of Church is offered. For the grieving Catholic, November is a hard month, but it is also a time in which hearts are healed. It is a month in which we recognize mourning as normal, even healthy, and that we are not alone in our sadness. On All Souls Day, the deep loneliness of grief is turned on its head into a shared experience. Even as all grieve a particular person, we pray as a community through our collective mourning. Through Christ, who promises his comforting presence in those who mourn (see Matthew 5:4), we know that we are not alone.
This year offers particular hurts and new and personal grief. In a time of pandemic in which the risks of communal prayer present real barriers to the lived experience of remembering the faithful departed, the calling is to creativity. Due to anticipating the annual throngs of people at our All Souls Day services, my parish canceled our candle procession. We moved our ofrenda outside where early winter winds batter it. In canceling our candle procession, however, we opened the church to prayer throughout the whole day. Ministers prayed individually (masked and distanced) with mourners. Even amid the changes and hiccups in local customs, healing occurred within our parish community.
I am amazed each November by the courage of the grieving faithful to live their hurts quite publicly. The church on All Souls Day fills with people who readily admit their breathless pain. This year especially I am deeply thankful for their vulnerable witness, and for a Church that creates a time and place to honor them and give words to their grief.
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