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The Faithful Departed

The readings for November 2, 2014, Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, Cycle A, are
Wisdom 3:1-9; Romans 5:5-11; and John 6:37-40.


Since 1970, the feast which commemorates all the faithful departed takes precedence over the Ordinary Sunday. The choice of November 2 for this commemoration dates back to the late tenth century and the influence of French monasteries. Spanish Dominicans in the fifteenth century orginated the custom of every priest offering three Masses on All Souls Day. Pope Benedict XIV in 1748 approved this custom, after which it spread rapidly in Europe and Latin America.

During World War I Benedict XV, moved by casualties of World War I, granted to all priests the privilege of celebrating three Masses on this day. Since the liturgical revisions following Vatican II, this day is about resurrection of the dead rather than about death.

The gospel reading is taken from the Bread of Life Discourse of John 6, This discourse is John’s meditation on Jesus’ miracle of feeding the five thousand in the wilderness. Feeding people in the wilderness with bread (and fish) echoes the feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness with manna during their Exodus from Egypt. John compares the manna of the wilderness with the “manna” which God is giving right now through the teaching in the Bread of Life Discourse. What allows John to make this transition from manna to teaching? Deuteronomy 8:3, “He … fed you with manna, which you did not understand, nor did your ancestors, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone but by every word which comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Thus the relation between manna and teaching was established centuries before John composed his gospel.

In the Bread of Life Discourse John calls Jesus’ teaching through the gospel “the true bread which comes down from heaven.” That was only the first step in the discourse. The second step is revealed in the words that immediately precede this day’s gospel reading,”I am the bread of life.” Therefore it is not only Jesus’ teaching that is the true bread from heaven, but Jesus himself as God’s ultimate revelation is the true bread that comes down from heaven. The third step will be taken toward the end of the Bread of Life Discourse when John depicts Jesus affirming with multiple double oaths, that his flesh and blood (the Eucharist) is the true bread that comes down from heaven. That third step, the revelation of Jesus as Eucharist, demands a response of faith and physical reception into our own bodies. Faith with reception receives the promise of bodily resurrection.

But the gospel of All Souls never gets to that step. Already in the second step, “I am the bread of life that comes down from heaven,” there is a demand for faith in Jesus as God’s ultimate revelation.  It is to this faith that Jesus also attaches a promise of resurrection. First Jesus affirms that this faith is a gift of God to which we do not come on our own, but are pulled in by the Father, “No one can come to me (in faith) unless the Father draws (pulls) him.” Once a person consents to that gift of faith, extended by the Father, “I will raise him up on the last day.” Therefore Jesus promises eternal life in three ways, faith/trust in his teaching, faith/trust in him as God’s final teaching, and faith/trust in him plus physically consuming him in the Eucharist.

The Feast of All Souls brings to mind the ancient teaching of Purgatory as a “place” of purgation or purification. The linguistic origin of the word “purgatory” is from the Latin verb purgare, meaning “to cleanse, to purify.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation, but after death undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

When speaking of Purgatory, consideration must be given to the teaching of Bl. John Paul II. On August 4, 1999, after previous instructions on heaven and hell, John Paul reflected on Purgatory. He explained that … “the term Purgatory does not indicate a place (a locality) but a condition of existence,” in which Christ “removes … the remnants of imperfection.” Prayers for the dead should be understood in this way: God knows, hears and accepts from all eternity our prayers which we make in time for the departed as a request for and thanksgiving for the burning love with which he purifies our loved ones. Beyond these human attempts to understand the afterlife, it is best to be mindful of St. Paul’s warning on another matter, “Learn from us not to go beyond what is written,” 1 Corinthians 4:6.

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