If you come into the Oratory Church on 1st November, you will find the Altar of St Philip Neri and the High Altar decked with reliquaries. These are the trophies of Christian victory. They contain the bones of saints whose souls now behold the Beatific Vision in Heaven. These mortal remains point us to the day when bodies and souls will be reunited to participate in heavenly glory together after the end of time. The liturgical colours of the Mass on this feast of All Saints are white and gold. White signifies the Resurrection, and the gold reminds us of the crown of eternal life that awaits everyone who dies in a state of grace.
On the following day the atmosphere is very different. Come into the church on 2ndNovember, and you will find it shrouded in black and violet. The candles on the altars are unbleached. This sobriety of All Souls’ Day sets the tone for the rest of the month as we launch into a whole series of Requiem Masses for deceased parishioners, Fathers and Brothers of the Oratory.
There can be a temptation to send everyone straight to Heaven when they die. Funerals can sometimes seem more like canonization ceremonies for the deceased. This does a great disservice to the dead. Most of us, when we die, probably need to be prepared before we can enter the Presence of Almighty God. The light is too dazzling, the fire of Divine Love too intense, for us to be able to bear without some acclimatisation. We have to be purified of all remaining sin, and of the disfiguring effects of sin on the human soul. During life many of us construct layers of impenetrable defence to hide our vulnerability. This armour, and every other obstacle that obstructs the perfect communication of love, need to be peeled away.
The Church has always taught that the prayers of the living are of great assistance to the souls in Purgatory. Catholics have a very practical response to death. We do not waste time in wishful thinking, neither do we wallow in a shallow remembrance of the dead. We actually do something very positive them. We show our love by accompanying them on their progress towards Heaven with our sacrifices and prayers.
One of the most difficult aspects of bereavement can be a sense of regret. Perhaps we feel that we could have done more to comfort a loved one, or possibly there are painful misunderstandings that remain unresolved. Thanks be to God we are able to express our affection beyond the grave, by praying for those whom we have lost, and especially by having Masses celebrated for them.
A Requiem Mass is a very practical response to death. In a memorial service the intention is really to distract the congregation from the troubling reality of mortality with anecdotes about the subject. At a Requiem Mass we actually confront death head on. At the Altar, the merits of Our Lord’s Passion and Death are applied to the soul of the deceased, washing his soul in an ocean of Divine Love.
It is only when the Church informs us that a soul is definitely in Heaven that we can confidently stop praying for the person concerned. When a new saint is canonized, we then ask him to pray for us. In this sense, the Church is a society of mutual assistance. We in the Church Militant on earth assist the souls of the Church Suffering in Purgatory. Meanwhile, the saints of the Church Triumphant in Heaven help us with their intercession before the Throne of Grace.
What an amazing scene awaits us if and when, by God’s grace, we arrive in Heaven. We shall see Our Lady robed in majesty as Queen. We shall immediately recognize St Joseph and the Apostles near the throne of God. Our fellow guests at the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb will include those legendary heroes of the Faith, Ss Philip Neri, Francis of Assisi and the Little Flower. Certainly there will be countless saints whom we never heard of, who lived and died in obscurity, but whose holiness now shines brighter than a million stars. We should also expect some surprises. Every saint so different from the next; but each one a glorious living icon of Almighty God.
Monsignor Ronald Knox once talked about the curtains of Heaven being transparent. He did not mean to suggest that we can see in. He meant to say that the saints are able to look out. They see us ploughing along through the muddy and rocky furrows of this earthly existence, feeling our way with difficulty and occasionally stumbling into a ditch. And they are able to help us, not only by the light of their example which makes it easier for us to see what we should do, but also with their prayers – prayers that are wise and strong, whereas ours tend to be so feeble and blind.
Saint Philip Neri used to say that in times of great need, we should make ourselves like beggars, and visit as many churches dedicated to the saints as possible, to ask for their assistance. This is much easier in Rome than it is in London. Visiting St Philip’s Altar on All Saints’ Day, however, we find it laden with the relics of many saints. We venerate the bodies in which these saints achieved holiness, bodies that once contained hearts that were overflowing with purity, meekness and divine charity. Following the advice of St Philip, we should approach these saints like poor mendicants with empty bowls. Ask the saints to fill them, gaining for us all the graces that will secure us a place with them in Heaven.
Fr Julian Large