Next month brings us two great holy days: the Solemnity of All Saints on Nov. 1, honoring everyone in heaven, and All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2, when we pray for the dead: those we knew and loved, and those unknown to us.
All Saints reminds us of the destiny that God intends for us and toward which we must direct our lives. This year All Souls’ Day is especially on my mind. I’m thinking about how important it is to honor the dead at their passing, and to reflect on the significance of each person’s life.
I don’t mean the “celebration of life” events that are often held today, if “celebration” becomes too much of a party, and the grief that accompanies loss gets lost itself. We should by all means celebrate the lives of those who were dear to us, or whose lives touched our own lives and made them happier and richer. We also need to grieve and remember and pray for those who have died, and that requires a certain holy respect. I saw an example of it not long ago, and it touched me deeply.
On July 22 I attended the funeral of Cynthia Caulfield, the mother of my friend and former colleague Brian Caulfield. Brian was a reporter at Catholic New York and is now an editor at the Knights of Columbus. He is also the vice postulator of the canonization cause of the Knights’ founder, the Servant of God Father Michael McGivney.
I did not know Mrs. Caulfield well, but I remember her as a gracious, cheerful woman with a welcoming smile. It was a privilege to attend her funeral in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A small group of family and friends gathered for the Mass, which was celebrated with solemn reverence by Father Andrew King, the cathedral’s master of ceremonies.
After the Mass, the coffin was wheeled out of the chapel, down a ramp and into the nave of the cathedral. Then it was wheeled slowly down the center aisle, with the mourners following.
There were, as usual, many people in the cathedral. Some were walking in the side aisles, pausing at the various shrines or admiring the cathedral’s architecture and stained glass. Others knelt in prayer or sat in a pew. No doubt some were tourists and others were regular visitors who live or work in the area. It was the kind of scene that one sees in the cathedral on a weekday: reverent but relaxed, each one absorbed in his or her own purpose for being there.
Something happened as the coffin was guided down the aisle. Nearly every person in the cathedral stood up and watched as the coffin passed by. Each one stood in solemn and silent reverence as the mourners slowly followed the coffin down the aisle and past the towering bronze doors to the street, where the procession to the cemetery would commence.
Inside the cathedral, the visitors who had stood up returned to their prayers or their tours. But they had shared for a moment in the sorrow of the mourners, and paid respect to someone they did not know but whose life on earth, now ended, had mattered.
Later, talking with Brian, I mentioned the many standing visitors.
“We noticed that,” Brian said. Comfort and compassion affect us, even when they come from those we do not know.
All Souls’ Day calls us to remember our beloved dead and how they influenced our lives, and to pray for them. The Book of Maccabees tells us that “it is a holy and wholesome thought” to pray for the dead (2 Mac 12:46). It is also holy and wholesome to honor the dead when they pass from this life. To take respectful note of someone’s death is a way to honor the person, to console family and friends, to acknowledge that every life matters, and to strengthen our own belief and hope in eternal life. Let’s remember on Nov. 2.