How to Spend the ‘Month of the Holy Souls’ in Time of Pandemic

COMMENTARY: November presents a new opportunity to address the pastoral needs of the living and the dead.

Praying for the holy souls is imperative. Observances of November to bear witness to Catholic thought about life and death are particularly vital in 2020.
Praying for the holy souls is imperative. Observances of November to bear witness to Catholic thought about life and death are particularly vital in 2020. (photo: Unsplash)

November is traditionally the month we pray for the souls in purgatory and reckon with the reality of death. With the threat of COVID-19 stalking the land, 2020 has seemed to be one long November. When many Catholics have long had to cope without Mass or the sacraments, how will we observe this “Month of the Holy Souls?”

Making suggestions is difficult, particularly when many parts of the United States still have not “flattened the curve” on COVID-19. New strains of flu usually appear in November and December. Apart from the usual seasonal varieties of the “bug,” we cannot yet predict what our current pandemic may look like as the weather turns cold.

That said, November 2020 offers an opportunity to address the pastoral needs of the living and the dead, so let’s not just dust off the “same old” but put thought into how to mark this special month. 

With more than 200,000 Americans having died of COVID-19 as of this writing, death is more “up close and personal” this year; but only “in some ways,” because the virulence of the contagion has in fact led to many people dying alone, without presence of family, friends and/or priests. 

The moratorium on public Mass in many parts of the United States this year makes a novena of Masses for the faithful departed all the more important. Given the scale of mortality that hit our country, it would not be inappropriate for us to mark all 30 days of November with Masses for the faithful departed. That expanded schedule also affords Catholics the opportunity to make their own “novena” sometime within the month of November and not just on the nine specific days a more limited period would provide. 

Not knowing how COVID-19 may manifest itself in the late fall/early winter — traditional times for an uptick in flu — parishes might also consider making these Masses available online for homebound and vulnerable populations that want to join in prayer. In the wake of COVID-19 and our professed claim of parishes being “communities,” why not keep one live Sunday Mass “online” all year to enable those in a parish whose age or health prevents in-person participation to attend Mass in their “community,” not just anywhere online?

In addition to this novena of Masses — nine days or extended — parishes might consider a special “funeral” Mass in November as a kind of vicarious funeral for those who, because of COVID-19 and social distancing, did not have a “normal” funeral in advance of their burials this year. Such a Mass, particularly targeted at families who lost loved ones this year and could not have a normal funeral, can provide an additional opportunity of prayer for the deceased and closure for the living.

Does your parish have a bereavement group? Is there anybody in your parish that reaches out when a parishioner dies? More importantly, while the days immediately after death and leading up to a funeral are often a frenzy of activity, the worst sets in once families and friends disperse, the burial is over, and people are left all alone. It is a work of mercy to bury the dead and comfort the living. What is your parish doing today on either account, especially two weeks after the funeral?

November is about both the dead and the living. In addition to praying for those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, it’s an appropriate time to do our own reckoning. How many of those 200,000 persons whom COVID-19 claimed, who were alive last November, would have imagined they wouldn’t be here this November?

The liturgical readings at the end of Ordinary Time are well suited to eschatological themes, particularly death, judgment and being prepared for it all. In the wake of this year’s unprecedented culling and in preparation for Advent, November is a fitting time for a parish retreat or mission. A retreat themed to both preparation and thanksgiving for the gift of life seems appropriate to November, both civilly and religiously. 

Assuming that pent-up cabin fever might try to release itself in the jam-packed travel days around Thanksgiving (and who knows what kind of social-distancing norms will then be in effect), a focus on spiritual preparation seems particularly apt, especially when we don’t know whether Advent or Christmas 2020 will be “socially distanced.” 

While the Church’s first business is our spiritual affairs, November is also an appropriate time to tend to the temporal side of our mortal business. Death’s paradoxical and contradictory nature — it’s coming for sure, but you don’t know when — suggests we should devote time to its consequences, including for our families. 

Funeral planning has both spiritual and practical sides: It bears witness to a person’s mature awareness of passing through this life en route to that life’s destination, but it also relieves the burden on spouses and children when we do pass on. 

Even as Catholics pray for their faithful departed this November, preparation for death entails considering how one will pray for them in the future. How can one plan to be spiritually remembered after death? 

Catholics can consider how to arrange the celebration of Gregorian Masses for themselves after their deaths. Some religious orders provide for advance planning in this area, with a card or other notification that a family member or executor can send, giving notice of someone’s death, in order to launch those 30 consecutive Masses. Does one want to enroll in some perpetual memorial or purgatorial societies, or establish some form of bequest so that Mass might be celebrated for their repose in the future, e.g., on the annual anniversary of their death? These things will generally not happen by themselves: Like the steward who took care to ensure his welfare was taken care of, shouldn’t we consider what we can do in this area?

November is a great time for parishes to offer people the opportunity to do funeral planning. Many of the resources are probably available in the parish itself among neighboring parishes working together. Can time be made for parish lawyers to talk about the importance of a last will and testament and the consequences of dying without one? Even better, can some of them — perhaps in conjunction with the local bar association — be recruited to help people draft simple wills? 

It’s also an opportunity to speak to Catholics about what is moral and what is not moral in end-of-life bioethics. Many Catholics have vague awareness of “pulling the plug” and “extraordinary means of preserving life.” They may be pressed by health-care personnel, especially upon hospital admission, to sign end-of-life directives or durable powers of attorney. Catholics need moral guidance as to what the Church teaches about what is and is not morally acceptable in this area, and November is a good time to explore it.

Are local funeral directors available to talk about funerals and funeral costs and how to handle them? Some religious orders even make simple coffins as part of their ministries: Do people know about those options?

Once upon a time, most parishes had their own cemeteries. Today, few do. (Some parishes have recently sought to recover that custom, recognizing that the graveyard is not just a utilitarian place to put the dead but a part of the Christian community, affirming the continuity of the communion of saints between those who are and those who have been earthly members of this parish). 

November is an opportunity for some service at the parish cemetery (even if it is now only the historic cemetery, lacking space today for burials), reaffirming the continuity in faith of the members of the Body of Christ. It’s also an opportunity for representatives of Catholic cemeteries (today, likely mostly diocesan ones) to discuss one’s last resting place (hopefully, like the Lord, in the earth).

With some advance planning, parishes can fulfill their evangelization and witness function as communities by how they organize their observances of November to bear witness to Catholic thought about life and death. That witness is particularly vital in 2020. Let’s start thinking about it now.