Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan
Recently, I stayed overnight in the rectory of the parish of Saints John and Paul, Larchmont, New York where I had served as pastor prior to my ordination as a Bishop. I was assigned a room in the rectory in which I had found one of the parish priests, a young man, dead on the floor, victim of massive heart failure. During that evening of my stay, I relived in my memory and in my heart the tragic events of that December morning 12 years ago when he did not show up for Mass and I opened the door of his room and found him fully clothed for priestly ministry but dead.
The recollection of that tragedy got me thinking about death. Of course, the deaths of my loved ones, family and friends, and the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of funerals and wakes that I have attended and prayed at these past 43 years of priesthood. I have never counted them but can testify that there have been many. A parish priest spends significant time ministering among the dead and those who mourn them.
In the Church the month of November is the traditional remembrance of the dead. It began with our thoughts fixed on the dead in glory, November 1st, All Saints Day and on November 2nd, All Souls Day, our prayers for those who have gone before us who are still working their way to glory. By these commemorations the Church never forgets her children who have passed from this life to eternal life. They are still in the Church. The doctrine of the Communion of Saints teaches us that we are connected with them in prayerful praise and in supplication on their behalf. They are connected to us through their prayer of praise before the throne of God. At each offering of the Holy Mass the Church remembers and prays for the dead.
A few years ago I was visiting Poland at this time of year. On the eve of All Saints Day at a nearby parish cemetery the graves were ablaze with lighted candles following a religious custom of the Polish people. It was quite a sight on a crisp dark Autumn evening, a clear testimony to all who looked that the darkness of death is cancelled out by the Light of Christ. The Lord could not be held in the valley of darkness. We light the Paschal Candle at funerals and place it prominently before the coffin of the deceased as a reminder of the Light of the Lord’s Resurrection, His passing through death to life which scatters the darkness of death.
Our memories of our beloved dead and our faith in Jesus Christ enlighten the varieties of darknesses that death brings into our lives. The memory of that young priest about whom I wrote is for me always a joyful memory despite his unexpected death and the sadness his loss brought to so many, joyful memories because he was a joyful priest. As the Irish playwright, Sean O’Casey wrote, “Mem’rys’ the only friend that grief can call its own.” In addition to our treasured memories of our deceased, faith brings understanding to the questions we have and the upsetment that arises when we have to deal with death, whether it comes suddenly or after a long illness. Understanding does not remove the pain caused by the loss of a loved one but the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Understanding does bring the Light of Christ into our hearts and souls and aids our understanding of the mystery of human death.
Let perpetual light shine upon them, a request we make to the Lord in a beautiful traditional prayer of our church. That prayer concludes: Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord. May they rest in peace. Amen. Let this be our prayer during November for all the faithful departed.