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Catholic Activity: November and the Holy Souls



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Mrs. Newland gives wonderful material to discuss during the month of the Holy Souls. Discussion topics include death, Extreme Unction (now the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick), indulgences, and praying for the Poor Souls.


The children had never been to a funeral before, nor attended a wake, nor had any personal acquaintance with death. Then in November, the month of the dead, someone dear to our neighborhood left this life to go to God.

They had prayed for her through a long illness. Their first concern was: "Did she go right to Heaven?"

Children always give you the point at which to start. A subject may have a dozen approaches, but the best one is by way of their questions.

We would like to have said, flatly, yes, she went right to Heaven. She had suffered much, uniting it to Christ's suffering. She had lived a life of prayer and sacrifice, had received the last sacraments and the final blessing with its plenary indulgence. Her last few months had been an excruciating trial and she had lain weeks longing for death; accepting suffering, but ready to welcome death. She wanted to die on Saturday because it was Our Lady's day, and Our Lady granted her wish. It would be easy to say, Yes, she is surely in Heaven. But even when you think so, you can never say that you know. It is God's secret and no one here knows.

But there is comfort for the living in what we do know: how the Church prepares us for death; how she prays for us after death, and the real possibility that we may "go right to Heaven" if we try very hard. Haven't we just celebrated the feast of All Saints, the glory of those who did? True, some among them entered by way of Purgatory, but they are there in Heaven nevertheless, and they confirm us in high hope.

Death is a touchy subject. (See author's We and Our Children, pp. 131-141.) People who do not know the Church (and some who think they do) accuse her of being "too mournful about death." Perhaps this is because she is so candid about man and his origin — dust. She knows he will return to dust. She knows that he inherited original sin and is weak, that the devil is clever; and she does not admit the impossibility of going to hell. She knows that Purgatory exists, and hurts, and that man was created for Heaven but may refuse to go there. She admits what everyone must admit: that wherever he is going, there is only one way to go there: to die. Death is a doorway we must go through. How else can the spirit leave the body behind and enter eternity?

For Catholics the idea of death ought not to be mournful. There is natural grief and loneliness for the bereaved families and friends, of course, but God mellows these with time. If death is otherwise mournful as an idea, as something to think about — or avoid thinking about — it is because we look at it from the wrong direction. We should be seeing it as the middle step, not the final step: life, then death, then God. It is God for whom we are created. By way of death, He is where we are bound.

This was the spirit of our neighbor's death. It accounted for the tranquility of her family's grief, their hopefulness, their ready resignation. Entering their home where her body was returned until time for the funeral, our children saw death for the first time as they knelt beside her and prayed.

"But, Mother" — this was in a whisper — "you said she might even be in Heaven with God. But she's not. She's here asleep."

You see? You are sure you have made it clear about the body and the soul, and not until such a time do you discover that you haven't. Not until such a time, either, do you see how truly the Church speaks of us as creatures with souls that will not die. Our bodies are the least of us. We could not talk about this at the moment, but we did when we got home.

"That wasn't her, dear. That was just her body. She has really and truly gone to see God and, we hope, to be with Him immediately in Heaven." How to explain this once and for all and put confusion to rest?

"You close your eyes." He did. "Now think a thought about yourself."

He closed his eyes very tightly, and thought, and said, "I'm thinking about myself."

"That is you, dear, that part that can think about itself, know who he is, say to me, 'I'm thinking about myself.' That is truly you, the you that will not die. Your body will die one day, and it will be carefully put in the ground, and the people will say, 'He has gone to see God.' They will be right. When our bodies finally die, the part of us that is soul and lives forever goes off to see God."


[Editor's Note: This is now called the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, not Extreme Unction. The following refers to the older version of the Roman Ritual for this Sacrament.] After this experience with death, we were glad we had read through the prayers for the Sick and Extreme Unction several months before. Their attitude toward death had always been wholesome, even cheerful, and it was a happy discovery to find that the Church in her prayers for the dying is nothing if not persistently cheerful. God was good to let them find this reaffirmed at the home of our neighbor, among her family, at her Mass and burial.

The prayers of the Last Sacraments are most appropriate additions to family prayer for the month of November. In the discussions that follow them, the family will find that it is not difficult to speak in the most practical way of specific customs, attitudes, requests, each in regard to his own death. What has seemed to be morbid and distasteful, almost unmentionable, is brought into the daylight, and we agree that it is only common sense to make arrangements and requests ahead of time for that final journey to the highest of all the "states of grace," eternal glory.

Never had I read the prayers of Extreme Unction in English before the summer of 1955 (and you know how old I am). That is a lot of years for a Catholic to brush with death every so often and not know what the sacrament for the dying is all about. I did not know that Viaticum, which is the Holy Eucharist administered to the dying, means "provisions for a journey." I would never have dreamed that a sick call could be such a heartening experience, more so than ever now that much of it is in English.

The first thing a priest on a sick call says, as he enters the house, is:

Peace be unto this home. And unto all that dwell herein.
He hears the confession of the sick person in private, administers Holy Communion if the patient is able to receive it, then makes this great petition (Father Weller's translation):
Let us pray. O Holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, full of trust we beseech thee that the most holy Body of our Lord, Jesus, thy Son, which our brother (sister) hath now received, may be unto him (her) an eternal remedy both in soul and body. Who livest and reignest with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.
To postpone calling a priest to administer these sacraments to our seriously sick is hardly Christian solicitude. Yet many do out of ignorance of what this rite implies, imagining that it will "frighten her." This is a failure to understand not only the wording of the prayers used, but the use of these sacraments. They are not merely forms it is customary to enact over Catholics when they are dying. They are Christ Himself coming to the patient. The Divine Physician is asked to come and heal the body as well as the soul.

The frequent use of these prayers in our families will quickly dispel such misunderstanding, for when their content is examined we see that they contain marvelous petitions for the living as well as the dying, for the entire household where there is illness. Nowhere in them is there the dread sound of cracking doom. Even at the end in the prayers before death, tenderness, charity, holy hope, sweet resignation, powerful faith are recommended to the soul, and the saints and angels are called upon to conduct the soul to the Most High. Here is the beginning prayer.

Let us pray. Along with our lowly coming, O Lord Jesus Christ, let there enter into this home unending happiness, divine blessing, untroubled joy, charity which is fruitful, continual health. Drive forth from this place the spirits of evil, let thine angel of peace come hither, and banish all harmful dissension from this house. O Lord, extol thy holy name in our esteem, and bless what we are about to do. Sanctify the coming of thine unworthy servant, for thou art holy, thou art kind, thou art abiding with the Father and the Holy Spirit through all eternity. Amen.
My, we should have these said for us every day. This prayer is especially for the living. But perhaps the next one will be about death. . . .
Let us pray to our Lord, Jesus Christ, and beseech Him to bless with His abundant benediction this home and all who dwell herein. May He appoint over them a good angel as a guardian, and assist them to serve Him, to contemplate the grandeur of His law. May He turn away all powers that would harm them, free them from all anxiety and distress, and keep them in well-being within their home. Thou who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, God, for all eternity. Amen.
". . . Free them from all anxiety and distress. . . ." This seems a petition for our times, for those ridden with neuroses and fears.

A passage from the Gospels is read, but not — as you might expect — the story of Lazarus, or Jairus' daughter, or the widow of Naim, or "what doth it profit a man," but the magnificent story of the cure of the Centurion's servant, emphasizing our Lord's healing power and our need to have faith in it. "Lord, my servant is lying sick in the house, paralyzed, and is grievously afflicted." Jesus said to him, "I will come and cure him. . . ."

Shortly after this, the anointing prayers (in Latin) from which the sacrament receives its name. Extreme Unction means last (extreme) anointing-with-oil (unction). Last not because death is inevitable, but because it is the last of the anointing sacraments. These are Baptism, when the newly baptized is anointed first on the breast and between the shoulders and later on the crown of the head; Confirmation, when the bishop anoints the candidate's forehead; and Holy Orders, when the bishop anoints the hands of the newly ordained priests. The oil used for Extreme Unction is the blessed Oil of the Sick, which is also used for the blessing of bells. (The other sacred oils are the oil of Catechumens, used for Baptism and at ordination, and for the blessing of baptismal fonts, baptismal water, altars, altar stones, consecrations of churches, and at the coronation of Catholic kings and queens; and Holy Chrism, an oil scented with balsam and used at Baptism and Confirmation, at the consecration of bishops and churches, and blessing of chalices, patens, baptismal water and church bells.)

If we have faith in the efficacy of holy water, properly used, consider the efficacy of the use of the sacred oils. All things considered — the three sacraments together, the powerful petitions, the use of this great sacramental — it is no wonder people regain their health and doctors ask priests: "What do you do to them?"

The sick person is anointed with the oil on his eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, hands, and feet, if possible, and the prayer adapted to each anointing is:

Through this holy anointing and through His tender mercy, may the Lord forgive thee whatever sins thou hast committed by the sense of sight (hearing, taste, etc.). . . .
The oil is wiped away with the six balls of cotton provided on the sick-call table.

Now, in Latin, a truly marvelous plea for recovery taken in part from the Epistle of St. James the Apostle:

Let us pray. O Lord God, Who didst say through thine apostle, James: "Is any man sick among you? Let him call in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he be in sins they shall be forgiven him." Cure, we beseech thee, O our Redeemer, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the ailment of this sick man (woman), heal his (her) wounds, and forgive his (her) sins. Deliver him (her) from all miseries of body and mind, and mercifully restore him (her) to perfect health inwardly and outwardly, that having recovered by an act of thy kindness, she be able to take up anew his (her) former duties. Thou Who with the Father and the selfsame Holy Spirit livest and reignest, God, forevermore. Amen.

Let us pray. Look down with favor, O Lord, we beseech thee, upon thy servant (handmaid), N., failing from bodily weakness, and revive the soul which thou hast created, that reformed by thy chastisement, he (she) may acknowledge herself saved by thy healing. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

A third prayer, and still no mention of death. Actually the only reference to death occurs in a shorter prayer used in emergencies, and even then the word is not used.

The Church does not agree with those who don't believe in hell because "you get your hell on earth." She does agree that the pains of Purgatory can be hellish, and that suffering here on earth can seem to be hellish; so in her wisdom she begs Our Father to let us bear them here in reparation for the sins which, otherwise, we will be purged of by the pains of Purgatory. The saints have said that it is a far easier way to pay for sin than in Purgatory. Part of the training of a Christian must include instruction in the use of suffering: we may accept and use it in payment for our sins, and for the sins of others. Suffering is to be considered one of our most precious possessions.

INDULGENCES With the Apostolic Blessing following Extreme Unction, one of the powers given to St. Peter is used in a final act of divine mercy. Before reading this prayer, and becoming involved with our children in a discussion of indulgences, we should open the Gospels and find the passages where this power is given by Our Lord Himself. It is unnecessary for Catholics to be embarrassed or apologetic about indulgences. The power to bind and loose is referred to in Scripture by Our Lord.

And I tell thee this in my turn, that thou art Peter, and it is upon this rock that I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:18-19).
Here He has given St. Peter both the authority and the concept, to bind and to loose. Later He speaks to the disciples:
I promise you, all that you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and all that you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 18:18).
Children will ask immediately about indulgences; so we must explain. Indulgences obtained for ourselves by ourselves depend on our disposition. They are not mechanically granted. It would do no one any good to spend his life reciting indulgenced prayers if he made no real attempt to avoid sin, if he failed in the first requirement — true sorrow for sin, if he did not try to live a good Christian life. (Franz Werfel's novel, Embezzled Heaven, treats this subject.) God is not to be tricked into letting anyone into Heaven.

The indulgences we gain for departed souls depend as well on our disposition. We must make the intention to gain them, and we must fulfill the requirements of the indulgence (for example, Confession and Communion with certain prayers, or the Rosary in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament); but we must also remember that the final word rests with God. He alone knows the state of soul, at the moment of death, of the one for whom we pray. It will do no good to obtain a plenary indulgence for a soul in hell. But God is merciful, and accepts such riches to apply to some other soul, as He decrees. Lucy dos Santos asked Our Lady at Fatima about two village girls who had died not long before the apparitions, and was told that one was in Heaven and one would be in Purgatory until the end of the world. Indulgences are a manifestation of God's love and mercy, but He is the Master all the same.

Children and grownups too, will ask if an indulgence of, say, one hundred days means "you get one hundred days off your Purgatory." Someone said not long ago: "How can your Church teach something as silly as that?"

She doesn't. If a doctrine is really silly, you may be sure that the Catholic Church does not teach it. The Church has never defined anything with regard to the meaning of an indulgence of so many days or years. The origin of this terminology arose out of the remission of penances imposed for certain periods of time: for so many years, or so many quarantines (Lents). Even the common theory that an indulgence of one hundred days would benefit a sinner to the same extent as the performance of a hundred days' penance in the past, has no foundation. The arithmetical aspect of penance is not our first concern, but rather the conviction that we are sinners, and need to do penance. God is merciful to give us indulgences as one of the means of fulfilling our penance.

The Apostolic Blessing after Extreme Unction obtains for the person a plenary (full) indulgence at the moment of death:

May our Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Who hath given to His blessed Apostle Peter the power of binding and loosing, mercifully receive thy confession, and restore unto thee the pristine robe of baptism. And I, by the power given to me by the Apostolic See, grant thee a Plenary Indulgence and remission of all sins. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Through the most sacred mysteries of mankind's restoration, may the almighty God remit unto thee the punishment of the present and of eternity, open to thee the gates of Paradise, and lead thee to everlasting happiness. Amen.

May almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, bless you. Amen.

We must begin immediately to become familiar with this sacrament Booklets with the English words can be obtained at little cost, and for the month of November it is a worth-while investment to obtain one for each member of the family, so that the children may by turns read the prayers aloud for the family, thus attending closely to what they say. Several of the prayers are ideally suited for family prayer when someone in the house or the neighborhood, or some other relative or friend, is ill, or as a frequent intercession for any and all "in all the world" who are ill.

APPLYING THE PRAYERS TO OUR SENSES The anointing prayers also offer an excellent means of teaching children to ponder the right use of the senses. For example, the day after we had read these prayers together for the first time, John and I were in the drugstore. He came over from a rack of paper-back mysteries with his eyes popping. "Mother! Come here — wait till you see."

We went back to the display and he pointed to a cover showing a voluptuous lady in hardly any clothes. "Look — isn't that awful! Not half enough clothes on."

"Yes, it's terrible. It's too bad. God makes people and gives them fine bodies and they do such things as this with them. You know, don't you, that it isn't a body that is bad — but what you do with one, or to one, or how you look at one or think about one, that can be bad. It makes you think of those anointing prayers, doesn't it?

"This is a good example of how you use your sense of sight. You see things with it — both good and bad, and what you must do is make the decision what to look at, and what not to look at. You see, it is quite possible that if you stood looking at these books long enough, you'd no longer be shocked to see the immodest ladies on the covers. The devil would try very hard to make you more curious, and if you continued to gaze at them, you could begin to like seeing them. You could then start to have immodest thoughts, and in time say it isn't wrong at all to stand around and look at them. That is how the devil tries to make you abuse your sense of sight. In the end, if you were not careful, you could commit serious sin with it. You have committed no sin today because you happened to see them accidentally and you know they are improper. But remember now that such things are wrong, that you must walk away and refuse to look at them."

It is not too soon to begin teaching him to think about how he uses his eyes. He is living in a world where pictures of sexy ladies are on most of the magazines in the paper store, on paperback mysteries in the drugstore, most of the movie posters, many of the television shows, hanging on the walls of barracks (and he may be there sooner than one likes to think). He needs years of practice to learn a Christian "custody of the eyes."

When we got home and were all together again in the evening, we talked some more about it.

"It helps you to remember how great your body is if you remember how the Church feels about it. When you were baptized your body was anointed. Father made the Sign of the Cross on your forehead and above your heart, and prayed that you might be a fitting temple of God. After he poured the water over your head and original sin was washed from your soul, he made another Sign of the Cross on the crown of your head, because you were now a Christian and shared a royal Kingship with Christ, our King. He asked Almighty God to make that anointing a blessing unto 'life everlasting.'

"When you know that at the end of your life, each of your senses will be anointed and the priest will ask God to forgive your abuses of them, it makes you think about how carefully you should use them."

Having had a practical example of the possible abuse of sight, the day before, we tried to think of examples of the abuse of the others. For instance, what wrongs could you commit with touch?

Taking things is obvious, but not always common. It has not been one of our problems so far. But that famous childhood curiosity, possessed by the Newlands' child as well as the Elephant's, is relative to this. No sin, this: it seems as nothing to adults removed from the world of children. But out of its temptations resisted can grow obedience, patience, the allaying of curiosity — and it demands reciprocal virtues from parents: that they understand the torments of the young and curious. These small struggles with obedience ("Now please, dear, do not touch!"), related with simplicity and love to the right use of the sense of touch, do not hint at the serious sins of touch, but help awaken a sense of the proper custody of the gift.

What of smell? I cannot imagine there are childhood abuses of this lovely gift, but we can talk about abuses to which it can lead. Part of gluttony is an unholy anticipation, perhaps whetted for some by the delicious smells of foods and beverages. We should rejoice when our food smells good, but never forget that eating is a habit of humans, in order that they may stay alive and do God's work; it is not the purpose of living. It must always be kept under control.

The delights of cosmetic smells easily become a form of sensuality for women, spinning a web that can trap a soul deep in self-indulgence. I remember walking into one of the great beauty salons — into that startling other-world of scent, powder, handsome décor, delicate mannerism — and sensing the danger there. One could so easily be persuaded this "world of loveliness" was the reality. Lovely scents can praise God and lift our thoughts to Him; after all, we use incense in our worship and flowers praise Him with their scent. But evil can smell lovely, too, and sanctity can sometimes smell so evil.

Girls and mothers find many opportunities to ponder the right use of smell, especially when there are babies in the house who sometimes smell so bad. Yet the loving attendance on them can be the most exquisite prayer. How many times we have thought, when asking with the Church that our prayers rise to Him as a sweet odor, that many's the "sweet odor of prayer" that goes up from a houseful of children!

To be clean and sweet and smell good is to be socially acceptable, and we all try to teach our children the habits of good grooming; but we must be very sure they understand that sweetness within is more important than sweetness without, and that they must use their sense of smell, and all the good things to smell, to give glory to God.

The sense of taste, of course, is companion to the sense of smell. It is easy to find examples of this.

The sense of hearing is not such a subtle offender, and with it goes the power to speak. A fragment of a telephone conversation gives an example.

"Did you hear what ——— said? No? Neither did I, but I know because I was told by ———, who heard it and told me, and I said I thought it was awful. Don't you think it's awful?"

But if ——— is awful for saying something, what about who heard ——— say it, and repeated it to ———, who listened and then repeated it to ——— and asked if it wasn't awful?

Perhaps this is not a serious sin this time, or the next time, or the time after that, but doing it can become a habit, possibly serious, potentially sinful. Gossip and giving scandal have no place on the list of Christian accomplishments. We have no right to circulate and thereby multiply the revelation of secrets that are the concern of some single soul and God.

What of the power of motion?

"My goodness, what sins can you commit with your feet?"

"I know — kicking!"

"If you kicked someone on purpose, it would probably be a sin. Certainly a dreadful imperfection. But there is more to the power of motion than kicking. We do know someone who, this day, went to you-know-who's house when he was told not to. That was disobedience and it had to be punished. What got him there?"

"Feet! "

"Right. Many times we use our power of motion in disobedience. When you grow up there will be places you must not go to because they are occasions of sin. While you are little, you practice making the right kind of decisions about going and coming by being obedient to your parents and using your power of motion in obedience. Think of where you are going when your feet take you somewhere. If it is not good to go there, say to them: 'Feet! Turn around and go back!'"

They are great gifts, these powers. The right use of them is part of the battle for perfection.

NO DISCRIMINATION November is the month of praying for the dead; so this proposes further discussion. We want the children to pray generously, boldly, not only for "our dead" but for all the world of the dead. Strangely enough, this is their way if they are left to themselves. Rarely are they content with our conventional phrasing, "relatives and friends and all the souls in Purgatory." They care about so many, and want to name them by name.

I was icing a cake one day and one of the boys was watching hungrily.

"Who's he?" he asked, pointing to Paul Revere on the sugar package.

So I told him the story of Paul Revere.

"Boy. He was pretty brave to do that. Is he dead?"

"Yes. That happened a long time ago."

That night at prayers we listed our intentions and our dead, and he added: "And Paul Revere, in case he's in Purgatory."

Yes, Paul Revere, and Rudyard Kipling, because he wrote the Jungle Book, and the Just-So Stories, and Kenneth Grahame because he wrote Wind in the Willows, and Beatrix Potter for Jemima Puddleduck and Peter Rabbit. They pray for Stephen Foster because they sing his songs, and all the ones who wrote their favorite music; for the Brothers Grimm, of course, and Hans Andersen. Then there is Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington, and all the dead in the cemeteries (for whom we pray when we drive by cemeteries), and the dead in the newspapers, and the accident victims. Add to these the bad dead, like Stalin and Hitler (whom they do not even know except from history books or, now and then, grownups' conversation), and the dead who have died without Baptism, "because we hope they got baptism of desire," also the dead of the terrible persecutions, and the bad Indians who martyred the Jesuits, the dead in our floods, and of course the dead who have no one to care about them or pray for them. The listings could go on all night, just as the lists for All Souls' Day could go on all day. But this is good, because we don't know about the dead. If they are in Heaven, our prayers will be used for someone else, and if they are beyond saving, our prayers will be used for someone else. Always, we must remember how much God loves souls and how dearly He paid on the cross in order to save them.

Charity is not just for this world. It extends to the world where so many we have loved, and God has loved, must wait and endure purification, "as though by fire." Masses, prayers, sacrifices, all must be encouraged for the dead. Blessed John Masias used to sprinkle holy water on the ground, saying that it was an efficacious devotion together with prayers for the souls in Purgatory. His story, Warrior in White, by Mary Fabyan Windeatt, is a good read-aloud story for November.

In the Canon of every Mass there is a special memento for the dead; so we can remind our children the night before and on the way in the morning to make their Mass intention for the dead. We can encourage them to sacrifice in order to give an offering for a Mass for the dead. We can remind them after they have been to confession that for the few moments it takes them to make the Stations of the Cross or recite the Rosary before the Blessed Sacrament and pray for the intention of the Holy Father, there is a plenary indulgence applicable to the souls in Purgatory. We can faithfully attend Forty Hours' devotion, parish Holy Hours, or whatever devotions our parish holds by which we may give praise and honor to God and succor to the dear dead.

Above all, let us not fail to teach our children that death is one of the punishments of original sin. It was not part of God's original plan. If Adam had not committed original sin, we would have gone to God some other way. Now we go through death.

We receive the gift of human life from God at birth and the gift of sacramental life from Christ at Baptism. Death is our opportunity to give life, our life; not merely to lie helplessly and let it be taken from us, but to offer Him with a willing heart this life we received from Him. We are free to make it our own surrender, in order to go to Him and glory.

Activity Source: Year and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1956