Monday, October 31, 2011

All Souls' Day: More Than Just a Visit to the Cemetery

Every year on November 2, Catholics in our local parish go to Mass and then visit the local Catholic cemetery. When we first moved here, I went to the Mass, but I never went to the cemetery; for one thing, it was usually a cold, windy day, and I didn’t want to brave the weather. For another thing, I simply did not understand the significance of that visit.
Now, with the experience and wisdom (ha!) gained in my whole almost-ten years of being a Catholic, I do understand – at least a little more – about that visit to the cemetery. I learned several years ago that one can gain a plenary indulgence for visiting a cemetery and offering prayers for the dead on All Souls’ Day (and actually, on any day from November 1 to November 8).  I even learned what a plenary indulgence is.
How did I learn this? Well, it was not from attending Mass on All Souls’ Day and hearing the priest talk about sin, indulgences, prayers for the dead IN PURGATORY, and the like. If anything, all I ever heard about the dead was that they were in heaven praying for us. Purgatory? Well…let’s just think happy thoughts about heaven.
No, I learned about indulgences from my spiritual director, who explained to me what they actually were, and who recommended a book, A Modern Guide to Indulgences, by Dr. Edward Peters. I read the book and found that, like all authentic Catholic teaching, the whole concept of indulgences and purgatory and praying for the dead was integrated, logical, and simply beautiful.
That visit to the cemetery after Mass on All Souls’ Day is not just something we do to “honor the memory” of the dearly departed. We don’t go there just to put flowers on graves and shed a few tears for the family and friends we’ve lost – which does nothing for the dead, but simply gives us opportunity to indulge our own sentimentality.
No, there is much more to it than that.
We go there to pray for their very souls. We go because there is sin in our lives, and there was sin in theirs, and we do not know whether or not these souls have gone to heaven. The Church tells us that almost certainly the deceased are in purgatory, being…well…purged…as the word tells us! They are being prepared to enter the court of the King of the Universe. And we can help them. We must help them, because they can no longer help themselves. That’s why praying for the dead is a spiritual act of mercy.
Even when I have heard people talk of purgatory, it’s been in a sort of off-hand, dismissive way, as if purgatory isn’t all that bad, and hey, you’re on your way to heaven if you at least have made it to purgatory, so no big deal. But then I read another book (I have been told by more than one person that I read too many books): Hungry Souls, by Gerard J. M. Van Den Aardweg. This book makes it very clear that purgatory is real…and painful. Yes, painful. Having every one of your sins laid bare, made excruciatingly present in your mind in the sight of God…well, that’s pain. There’s lots more about the pains of purgatory in Hungry Souls. Read the book.
So…about that visit to the cemetery: through this act, we can gain graces which are passed on to the souls in purgatory, and we also gain graces for ourselves because of the act of mercy in which we participate.
There’s a catch, though. Indulgences don’t come by wishing. There’s work involved. If you read about particular partial or plenary indulgences, you will often see the phrase “under the usual conditions”. What are the “usual conditions”?
For a partial indulgence, one must:
1.      Be baptized
2.      Be in the state of grace
3.      Have the intention to obtain the indulgence
4.      Perform the works or offer prayers correctly
And for a plenary indulgence, one must:
1.      Meet all the requirements of a partial indulgence
2.      Not be excommunicated
3.      Have no affection for sin, not even venial sin
4.      Receive the sacrament of reconciliation and Holy Communion and offer prayers for the pope’s intention within 8 days before or after the indulgenced day
A true appreciation of indulgences brings one to the realization that:
a.       Sin exists (!)
b.      Sins must be forgiven in order to be indulgenced; that means going to confession.
c.       People who die do not automatically go to heaven, no matter how much we love them!
d.      Indulgences can only be granted through the Catholic Church
And finally, it is very important to know that to obtain an indulgence, one must have the intention to obtain it. I’ve noticed that older prayer books often suggest a prayer to this effect: “I wish and purpose to gain today all the indulgences which it is possible for me to gain.” When I pray that prayer, I automatically think about how long it’s been since I went to confession, because that will have some bearing on whether or not I qualify for a plenary indulgence. And both confessing my sins and obtaining an indulgence (whether for myself or for someone else) are good for my soul.
I think that if all the faithful had a greater appreciation of indulgences, there would be more visits to the confessional. I think there would be fewer funeral Masses that sound like beatification ceremonies, and more that sound like the prayer for God’s mercy that they are supposed to be.
My conclusion: The effort to obtain indulgences leads to more prayer, more awareness of sin, prayers for the dead, and the salvation of our souls. Sounds like a good thing.  Too bad we don’t hear more about it from our priests and bishops!
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis.


  1. Thanks for this. I often wonder how to pray for my deceased Protestant loved ones -- well, I just pray, but you know, I wonder what they are experiencing.

  2. I just recently stumbled upon your blog and am enjoying it very much. I do wish I'd hear more about purgatory from our dear priests. Unfortunately, our previous pastor didn't just beatify the newly deceased, but they were instantly canonized. Everybody was Saint So-and-so. Very disturbing to say the least and it always left me with little hope that somebody would actually pray for me when I die.

  3. Stacy: Have you read "Hungry Souls"? I recall that in that book there is at least one instance of a Protestant soul appearing and asking someone to have a Mass said for them. Interesting...


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