I headed out to the store because I wasn’t sure that my husband had purchased enough candy for this year’s onslaught of trick-or-treaters. On the way, I determined that another fifty pieces of chocolate would suffice. The sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet distracted me as I crossed the parking lot. A couple with three school-aged children in tow added to my amusement as I approached the store entrance. I heard the eldest child ask, “Can we look at the Halloween costumes first?” His dad quickly responded, “Let’s get the other shopping done. Then we can take our time checking out the costumes.” I smiled as I thanked God that I have no costume worries this year. Still, as I headed toward the candy aisle, I couldn’t help recalling the numerous homemade Halloween costumes which my siblings and I donned so long ago…
Because we attended our parish school, we never celebrated Halloween, once called the Eve of All Hallows, without acknowledging the saints for whom this holy day is designated. Each year, the nuns attempted to keep us focused upon the point of our celebration by encouraging us to dress as saints for our class Halloween parties. Apparently, this was the least we could do to repay these holy ones for this annual intake of sweets.
After complying with the good nuns’ wishes, collecting far more candy than I could ever eat and attending Mass on All Saints Day, my thoughts turned to November 2. I focused upon All Souls’ Day (now The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed) because on this particular day my fellow Catholics and I could accomplish some serious good on behalf of our loved ones who had passed away.
Years ago, Catholics observed All Souls’ Day by visiting their parish churches as often as possible. It was said that one soul could be released from purgatory as a result of each visit. In an effort to ensure the eternal happiness of as many of our departed loved ones as possible, many of us visited our parish churches often on All Soul’s Day. If this practice netted the desired results, I single-handedly secured the eternal happiness of every one of my departed family members by the time I was twelve years old! Though I chuckle over my childhood fervor, I admit that I continue to take the journeys of those who are heaven-bound very seriously.
Purgatory conjures up a variety of images in the minds of Catholics. The church drew the concept of purgatory and our ability to atone for sin after this life from the scriptures (2Macc 12:46): “Therefore Judas Maccabeus made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” The church believes that our prayers for those who have passed away and our prayers for the living are equally powerful. This is indicated by another passage which tells us Job purified his living sons through his sacrifice (Job 1:5).
When we pray for the living and for those who have passed away, it is important to remember that none of us can determine the depth of or place limits upon God’s mercy. Neither the official church nor we who are the people of God can presume to know what happens between us humans and our God during our tremendous journeys from this life to the next. It is up to our loving and merciful God to see to our readiness for heaven. What the church does do is to designate All Souls Day as one opportunity to recall those who have gone before us. So it is that we acknowledge our love for those whom we have lost and we recognize their goodness. We also recognize the imperfections in which we all share. As a faith community, we pray for them. We ask that their journeys to God’s embrace are swift, and we celebrate the knowledge that the potential for sainthood remains within them just as it remains within us all.
This Halloween, as we dole out candy to trick-or-treaters, we might take the moments between visitors to consider our own mortality in light of our immortality. Knowing what will become of us one day makes all of the difference in this world and in the next. As we pray for the safe journeys of those we have committed to God, let’s not forget God’s merciful presence in our own lives. May each of us accept God’s forgiveness graciously. May we extend God’s forgiveness to all who long for it. And may we never place limits upon the unlimited mercy which God extends to us all.
©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved