by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The first two days of November and throughout the month the Catholic tradition does what it does best – celebrate those who have gone before us and reflect on death. November 1st, Feast of All Saints, recalls those innumerable persons, famous and less so, who have made a particular impact on our lives. November 2nd, Day of the Dead, reminds us among other considerations, that death is not the final chapter in human existence. And during the rest of November, the People of God continue to celebrate the memory of these heroes, heroines and beloved.
We are putting into practice the phrase which we pray often too quickly in our profession of faith: “We believe in the communion of saints.” That is the wonderful belief in what St. Paul describes in his letter to the Hebrews: “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). We recognize that those who have passed through the doorway of death continue to be with us now in their life that is eternal.
Someone has said that “Catholics do death very well”. This is strikingly true in the way we acknowledge liturgically that someone has left us. At funeral Masses, the casket or cremains are draped with a white cloth, the priest’s vestments are white as well; the Paschal candle, symbol of the Risen Christ, Light of the world, is lighted. The biblical readings speak of the belief in resurrection we carry in our hearts.
For example: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God”; “Oh death where is thy victory? “Do not let your hearts be troubled … I go to prepare a place for you.” Prayers at the burial place cite the temporary nature of laying to rest the beloved’s remains. It acknowledges mourning the loss but not at all despairing of it.
November is a special time in our Catholic lives as we move toward our own death and with practical lessons for each of us.
Consider the Christian conviction that God is a God of life; that Jesus came that we might have life in abundance; that our task is “life and living and not death and dying” for as long as we have breath in us.
Consider the realistic outlook that life as we know it is short, a fact that energizes our commitment to “what is true, what is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious…excellence and worthy of praise…” (St. Paul to the Christians of Philippi in Greece – Chapter 4:8)
Consider finally that, without being at all morbid about it, as we grow older there is before us the task of preparing for death.
In this respect let me humbly offer something I have been doing since I turned 80. It started with a conversation I had years back with a gerontologist (a student of aging). He made the point that a vital task for people as they age is reviewing and reflecting on the life they have lived. At that time of life, I began writing down my memories, but not as an autobiography (although someone may find them some day). I have done this for myself – to sum up what my life has been all about, in a way to bring closure to what has been a long life.
Finally, we all have a fear of dying. This inevitable experience is done, hopefully, with loved ones around us. But essentially, we live through it alone and it is entirely an unknown. May our prayer in this month of the dead be to achieve what theologian Karl Rahner once said. When asked if he continued to believe all that he had written about God and religion, he answered simply: “One thing I do know – when I die, I will fall into the arms of a loving Father.”
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.