ALL SOULS DAY is a holy day set aside by the Church for honoring our departed brothers and sisters. On this day we prayerfully commemorate the souls of Christians who have died. The day is marked by special devotions for the departed souls, almsgiving to the less privileged and visits to the burial grounds and respective graves. In places like Poland, people light up candles around the graveside and share meals close to the grave. Originally, this feast was predominantly celebrated by Catholic Christians. Gradually the celebration spilled into few other Christian denominations. The Anglican Church which appears the largest protestant Church was the first to appreciate and adopt this annual Christian festival which comes up on every 2nd day of November.
According the original Catholic belief, the soul of a person who dies can go to one of these three places; the first is heaven, where a person who dies in a state of perfect grace and communion with God is admitted. The second is hell, where those who die in a state of mortal sin are perpetually condemned by their choice while alive. The intermediate option is purgatory which is thought to be where most people, free from mortal sin, but still in a state of venial sin must spend a period of purgation or chastisement before the qualification for their ultimate entry into heaven. On this day therefore, every Catholic priest who is in good standing with his bishop and the Church is expected to celebrate extra masses for the souls of these our dead relatives.
Unfortunately, most protestant denominations seem to be at war with the theology behind the purgatory, yet the truth of its reality remains immutable. Applying simple human reason, purgatory is aptly necessary so that souls can be cleansed and perfected before entering into heaven to enjoy the beatific vision. There are scattered references in the bible concerning purgatory and its necessity. The most outstanding references are found in 2 Maccabees, 12:26 and 12:32.Here we read “Turning to supplication they prayed that the sinful deeds might be fully blotted out — Thus made atonement for the dead that they might be free from sin”.Additional references are found in the books of Zachariah, Sirach, and in the gospel of Matthew. Jewish tradition and our African thoughts and culture inadvertently reinforced this belief as well as the dogmatic teachings of the Church.
Consistent with these teachings and traditions, Catholics believe that through the prayers of the faithful on Earth, the dead are cleansed of their sins so they may enter into heaven. Applying common sense, we all know that anyone detained or imprisoned can only be bailed by another person.
However, confusion stepped in when Martin Luther, following a given misunderstanding in the Church translated the Bible into German and purposely omitted the seven books of the cannon which refer to prayers for the dead. He therefore introduced the heretical belief that people are simply saved, or not, and argued that there is no need to pray for the dead to get into heaven.The Church reeled from Luther’s accusation tactically reformed its practices which were at odds with Luther’s stand. However, it re-emphasized the biblical and traditional practice of praying for the departed. It underlined in bold languages the importance of such prayers.
It is important to note that ALL SOULS DAY is not a holy day of obligation. It should not be confused with ALL SAINTS DAY which is a holy day of obligation. Many cultures mark the day differently. Some people say extra prayers on that day or light candles in succession for the departed. In Owerri Catholic Archdiocese, His Grace Most Rev. Anthony Obinna celebrates a special mass with his priests and religious by mid-day for our departed Bishops, Priests and religious. After the mass a processional visit is made to the available tombs of these our departed brethren. Short prayers are said at each tomb and holy water is sprinkled on them. It is also recommended that every Christian may visit the tomb of his or her departed one, if possible with a lighted candle.
As we celebrated the feast of all souls today, let us bear in mind that God, out of His love, has given us another opportunity to redress our sinful steps. The choice is ours today – the choice of direct entry into heaven, a retardation in purgatory or a perpetual sorrow and anguish in hell fire. This is our chance! Let us pray for the forgiveness of our numerous past sins and let us renew our lives today. Each year God gives us a new report sheet. As we pray for the departed, we dare to say in Igbo – KA OSI TAA DI MMA.
Rev Fr. George Nwachukwu
Catholic Archdiocese Owerri