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All Souls Day
November 1, 2019

    Not long ago, after conducting a committal service out at Calvary Cemetery in Northeast Seattle, I did what I often do: walked over a little hillside to spend some time in quiet prayer at the place where my family members lie buried.  It’s always a moving experience to stand on that holy ground marked by a modestly imposing tombstone where my mother and father lie buried, along with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I read their names on the headstones, picture the faces of the ones I knew, hear their voices, remember a few of their stories, have a little chat with them, and tell God of my gratitude for them: for who they were and for what they gave me: life, love, faith, a heritage, a history, and the promise of a future that will bring all of us together one day, together in God.

     The older I get, the more I find myself noticing the dates on the grave markers as well as the names. This is a bit sobering. My Mom lived to be 95, but my Dad died at 54, and his dad died at 59. There was a time, of course, when those numbers seemed old to me, but no longer. Thoughts of my own mortality begin to take over.  And then I recall this striking thought from the great Cardinal Newman whose canonization I got to attend a few weeks ago. Newman once observed (and I quote): “each year, one passes, without knowing it, over the day of one’s death, as if walking over one’s grave,” and if that’s not a sobering thought, I don’t know what is…!

     Those may be more personal reflections than you needed, but I share them with you in the hope of helping to focus on just what it is the Church wants us to be thinking about on this day we call All Souls.

     It is not without good reason that, each year, the Church sets aside this day to help us get better in touch with the mystery of mortality: our own, yes, and the mortality of those countless ranks of our sisters and brothers, known and unknown, who have gone before us – some, many long years ago; others perhaps as recently as last month or last year.

     And, yes, the Church also gives us this day to pray for those who have gone before us – an ancient practice of the Church that is grounded in the great doctrine of the Communion of Saints, a doctrine we proclaim every time we recite the Creed, and a teaching that has its roots in that beautiful passage from the Letter to the Hebrews about “the great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us.  It is our firm belief that God’s holy people are those both living and dead, and that among those who have died are the saints in glory and those still being shaped and formed for glory.  The Communion of Saints says that there is a real communion, an ongoing communion between the living and the dead or, as I prefer to put it, between the living and the more living. It is a communion nurtured by prayer – ours for them, theirs for us.

     None of the great settings of the Requiem Mass including Mozart’s, make sense apart from these traditional Christian beliefs. It was those very beliefs that inspired Mozart’s musical genius and that give his masterpiece transcendent beauty, authenticity, and a mysterious power to stir and awaken faith as it takes us from the realities of our present existence and gives us a taste of eternity. With good reason, Pope Benedict once referred to Mozart, not as our greatest composer, but as “perhaps our greatest theologian.”  Tonight I think of him as perhaps our greatest preacher.

     My friends, in an age often called secular or “post Christian,” Mozart’s Requiem is nearly always performed as a concert piece – a magnificent work of art but a slightly quaint relic: a leftover from another time and place, a glorious form lacking substance.

     But tonight we dare to say something different.  We dare not only to perform a Requiem but to celebrate a Requiem.  In doing so we are making a statement, an act of faith.  We are allowing Mozart’s magnificent musical composition help us plumb the depths of the great Christian mysteries of life, death, and resurrection, to help us transcend the limits of time and space, to put us in close communion with the Communion of Saints, to take us to that table in an Upper Room where bread and wine became for all time sacraments of a Body broken and of Blood poured out in love beyond all telling.

     Make no mistake about it, my friends: what we do tonight is an expression of faith or, maybe for some, a reaching out for faith – faith in the God of life, faith in Jesus who gave his life for us and gained it back in the giving, faith in the God who one day will give us life in its fullness but who has already begun to give that life to us even now as we continue along our pilgrim way!

Father Michael G. Ryan
 

 

 

 

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Seattle, Washington  98104
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