Catholics Pray For Their Dead During November

The month of November is observed in the Roman Catholic Church as a time for remembering deceased loved ones in special ways. That does not mean that these deceased are not remembered at other times. The tradition of doing this grows out of the Catholic belief that at the time of one's death, a person is judged as worthy of heaven or as deserving of hell. Even those destined for heaven may not be completely ready to live with the all-holy God and his angels and saints. Individuals who are destined for heaven may still have personality defects or tendencies that need cleansing or purification such as selfishness, greed, anger, jealousy, lust, hatred, etc.

This process of cleansing or purification in Catholic circles is known as purgation or purgatory. There is no clear understanding of the nature of this cleansing nor of how long the cleansing takes. This purgation might come from a person's face-to-face (I Cor. 13:12) encounter with Jesus after death, and a person's self awareness then that she/he has not grown completely beyond his/her selfishness, greed, lust, anger, jealousy, etc. In that encounter with Jesus, a person's whole life - the good and the evil - is revealed in overwhelming fullness; and the person recognizes, and embarrassingly so, the need for purification and cleansing.

Many images have been used to describe the purification process, such as a purifying fire, a time of suffering, a place of suffering. But we must remember that concepts such as place and time are not applicable in the realm of the soul or spirit. We must think of purgation more as a process or experience. Those in the purgation process are destined for heaven after they undergo purification, but those who are condemned to hell at the judgment after death are forever excluded from heaven. There is an Old Testament passage (2 Macc. 12:38-46) that tells how Judas Maccabeus had sacrifices offered for the dead "that they may be freed from sin because it is a holy and pious thought to pray for the dead."

Furthermore, those in the purgation process cannot help themselves, and they depend on the prayers and good deeds of the Church and friends who are still alive. The Catholic belief is that prayers work on behalf of another; and good deeds are meritorious and can also be applied to another person, including a loved one who has died. As a consequence of that belief, Catholics designate the month of November each year to pray for and to do works that can help deceased who are undergoing the process of purification or purgation. The tradition of praying for the dead began in the era of persecutions under the Roman Empire.

In many Catholic churches, including St. Mary Basilica and Assumption Church, members are invited to list the names of their deceased loved ones so that these can be prayed for by congregation members throughout the month of November. Because the formal prayer of the Church, the Mass, is seen as the highest form of prayer, parish members ask that a specific Mass be prayed for a deceased loved one. Such a Mass may be celebrated on weekdays or on Sundays. Church members are also encouraged to pray regularly for deceased loved ones. November 2nd each year, known as the feast of the Holy Souls, is designated as a day of prayer for the deceased. The Masses celebrated on this day are done for the benefit of those who are deceased.

Another way that Catholics remember and pray for their deceased loved ones is to visit their graves, pray there for them, and/or bring flowers. Some church members also do good deeds in the name of a deceased or a number of deceased loved ones. These good deeds could include helping a neighbor or needy person, working at the Stewpot, Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities or any helping agency, or making a donation to one of these organizations.

In addition to the performance of good deeds, the Catholic tradition also includes the doing of sacrifices and applying the merits arising from these to the deceased. Sacrifices might take many forms, including refraining from certain foods, desserts or beverages during the month of November and applying the merits of these to the deceased. Sacrifices might also include a commitment to daily prayer or attendance at Mass for the deceased, visitation of the sick, daily Bible reading or refraining during November from coffee or alcohol.

In Natchez, the Catholic community each year on the first Sunday of November holds a cemetery procession in the Natchez City Cemetery. This tradition began in 1861 and has continued each year with the exception of the Civil War years. The procession begins at the original Catholic site (Plot 1), established in 1823, and proceeds to the new Catholic section, Catholic Hill, which was purchased by Bishop William Elder in 1861. This annual procession is scheduled for this Sunday, November 4, at 2:00 pm. The program this year includes: a biographical sketch of one family at Plot 1, then the processional with prayer to Catholic Hill, a remembering of one of the great pastors of the mid 19th century (Rev. Mathurin Grignon), a litany of those who died since the procession day in 2011, and closing prayers.