There is a graveyard beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Where the Vatican now stands, there once was a necropolis, a city of the dead. Mausoleums stood side by side like little houses, silent streets running beside them. It was there, in this graveyard, that Saint Peter was buried in a simple poor man’s grave.
When Constantine, in the fourth century, decided to honor Saint Peter by building a Basilica over his relics, he used the necropolis as the foundation. Building a few retaining walls, he covered everything with dirt, essentially setting up a time capsule, just waiting for future archeologists. Those scientists arrived in the mid-twentieth century. They made many fascinating discoveries, not least of which were Peter’s grave and bones. They also found plenty of pious graffiti. One in particular read, “Peter, pray to Jesus Christ for the Christians buried near your body.” From the beginning, Christians believed in the intercession of the saints and the importance of praying for the dead.
This Sunday the Church celebrates All Souls Day. November 2nd of every year is set aside as a day of prayer for the dead. Even when it falls on a Sunday, it takes priority. We never miss the opportunity to pray for the dead. Priests, ordinarily restricted to no more than two masses in a day, are encouraged to pray three that day. The faithful are encouraged to make visits to cemeteries and to remember their departed loved ones in prayer. On that day, the Church acts as one body, storming heaven on behalf of her departed members, boldly reminding the Lord of his Father’s will: “that I should not lose anything of what the Father gave me.” It is fitting that we celebrate All Saints Day the day before. Honoring all of heaven on November 1st, we seek their intercession on November 2nd.
There are many disturbing trends today. As a priest, I am particularly conscious of trends of decline in the Church. There is a decline in baptisms and marriages, of mass attendance and the use of the sacrament of reconciliation. Also very troubling is the decline in funerals. Increasingly, souls are passing from this world unaccompanied by prayer and the sacrifice of the Mass. In place of the funeral Mass offered for the good of the deceased, is often some small gathering for the comfort of the living. It is certainly laudable to comfort those who mourn, but our first priority is the good of those who now appear before God. Perhaps there is no greater sin against charity than not to pray for the dead. For we can pray for nothing better than that someone enjoy the eternal life of the blessed.