Is There Something You're Not Remembering?
By Fr. Dan Cambra, MIC (Oct 29, 2015)
Looking ahead as we prepare for Nov. 2, All Souls' Day, and the November remembrance, in which we spend the month remembering the souls in purgatory in special ways, I wanted to share some recollections of Br. Andrew Maczynski, MIC, who grew up in Poland. He shares about his countrymen's special devotion to the Holy Souls.
"Back in my younger days, Nov. 1 was always a special day," Br. Andrew said. "I recall everyone going to the cemetery all day long. The first was a national holiday, and people would often travel great distances to visit the graves of their parents, grandparents, brothers, or sisters. It is like Thanksgiving in the United States. Everyone is traveling in order to put flowers and light candles on the graves of their departed relatives. It was an important custom then and is still very popular today.
"I remember even after I became a Marian, I liked to go and pray the Rosary for the faithful departed on the evening of Nov. 1 in the cemetery. It was November, so it was getting dark earlier, and the cemetery presented such an amazing view with the candles lit on all the graves. It was a beautiful vision ... candles being lit by the thousands throughout the day. It created a halo over the cemetery. You could see candles burning even in the distance. It was a very moving, touching sight.
"It is very moving to realize people still remember to come and pray for the Holy Souls. They plant flowers, organize graves, and pray for the souls of their ancestors. It's very inspirational to see that happening. People do believe. I think it's a great witness to see the faithful united to the Church in this way. Those of us who are still fighting are seeking the intercession of those who are glorified for those who are being purified. "
Praying in cemeteries for departed loved ones, especially in November, is customary in all Catholic countries. It's typical for the faithful to visit the graves of relatives and friends on All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and/or All Souls Day (Nov. 2). Weather permitting, Masses are often held in the cemetery, and then members of the congregation go to pray at the graves of their departed loved ones. Leading up to All Saints Day, many people decorate the graves of their loved ones with flowers and place candles to be lighted on the vigil of All Saints Day. The candles then burn through the night. People call them "lights of the Holy Souls."
Of course, during the month of November, Br. Andrew and the rest of us Marians around the world join together to offer daily Mass, various prayers, and sacrifices on behalf of those in purgatory. We remember in particular the most forgotten souls, the souls of our departed Marian confreres, the souls of our departed loved ones, and the souls of departed benefactors of our community.
Brother Andrew's recollections got me thinking about what Catholics in other countries typically do for All Souls Day. As I researched this, I found the Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Fr. Francis Weiser, published in 1958 by Harcourt. In the book, Fr. Weiser says it is an old custom in central Europe to ring the church bells at the approach of dusk on All Saints Day, to remind the people to pray for the souls in purgatory. When the bells are heard, families gather, extinguish all lights except for one candle, and pray for the Holy Souls.
"In the rural sections of France," Fr. Weiser writes, "four men ring the church bell for an hour on All Saints Day after dark. Four other men go from farm to farm during the night, ringing hand bells and chanting at each place: 'Christians awake, pray to God for the souls of the dead, and say the Pater and Ave for them.' From the house comes the reply 'Amen' as the people rise for prayer."
Father Weiser continues, "In most countries of South America, All Souls Day is a public holiday. In Brazil, people flock by the thousands to the cemeteries all morning, light candles, and kneel at the graves in prayer. The deep silence of so many persons in the crowded cemetery deeply impresses the stranger. In Puerto Rico, people walk for miles to the graves of their loved ones. The women often carry vases of flowers and water, for they know they can get no water at the cemetery to keep the flowers fresh."
I also know that Mexico celebrates it as Dia de los Meurtos, Day of the Dead.
In addition to what Br. Andrew described in Poland, Fr. Weiser writes, "The faithful bring to their parish priest on All Souls Day paper sheets with black borders on which are written the names of their beloved dead. During the evening devotions in November, and on Sundays, the names are read from the pulpit and prayers are offered for the repose of the Holy Souls.
"The tradition of devoting eight days in early November to special prayer, penance, and acts of charity has developed over time among the faithful. [Today, the Church celebrates this octave on Nov. 2-9.] People call this particular time of the year 'Soul Nights.' Every evening, the Rosary is said for the Holy Souls by the family while the blessed candle burns for the souls. Many go to Mass every morning. A generous portion of the meal is given to the poor each day. Further, the faithful abstain from dances and other public amusements out of respect for the Holy Souls."
On All Souls Day in countries where fishing is a key occupation, the women from the families whose relatives have died at sea sail to the area where they perished. There, all say prayers for the departed souls.
Food has played a big role in the All Souls Day customs of the past. Father Weiser writes, "The Irish would build up the fire, set the chairs round in a semicircle, spread the table with a clean cloth, and put a large uncut loaf and a jug of water out for the Holy Souls."
Father Weiser continues, "Catholics in Germany, Belgium, France, Austria, Spain, Italy, Hungary, and in the Slavic countries baked special 'All Souls' Bread' in honor of the Holy Souls and bestowed them on children and the poor.
"In Eastern Europe, the farmers held a solemn meal on the evening of All Souls Day, with empty seats and plates ready for the souls of departed relatives. Members of the family put parts of the dinner onto the plates. These portions were not touched by anyone, but afterward they were given to beggars or poor neighbors. In Hungary, the people invited orphan children into the family for All Saints and All Souls days, serving them generous meals and giving them gifts."
As we prepare for the November remembrance, let's consider how we can adopt, or perhaps adapt, some of these traditions and pass them on to our children and grandchildren. May these practices help deepen our devotion to the Holy Souls and enrich our family life as we remember the faithful departed this coming November.
Learn about the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Visit prayforsouls.org.