Note: This is the second essay of a series on the Hallowtide Trivium (Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day). The first two essays can be read here and here.)
The observance of All Souls Day on November 2nd grew out of the example set by St. Odilo of Cluny in the 11th century who offered up prayer, fasting, and encouraged almsgiving for all the faithfully departed as well as all the souls in purgatory. This practice would later spread to all of the Western Church where it remains today, and follows the Feast of All Saints on November 1st. It is not a holy day of obligation but it is still part of the Hallowtide or Hallowmas triduum, so its significance should not be underestimated.
It is a time to remember not only the souls of all baptizes Christians that have passed from this world, but also all those souls who for whatever reason may not have had a chance to hear the fullness of the gospel. Since we do not know the state of any person's soul at their time of death, it is a great act of charity (caritas) to fast, offer up prayers, and give alms for the sake of all the souls in purgatory. All Souls Day is a day that should remind us that just as we pray for one another in this life, we should continue to pray for them and others after they die.
This is especially important for those who have no one to pray for them or have been forgotten in life. For as we shall see it is the forgetting about the dead and their continued need for prayers, that is driving force behind the two competing forces, one from the secular world and the other from the occult, that (as mentioned in part one) present a false set of choices of Catholics.
The Presumption of the Dead
The Church is rapidly emerging from the doldrums of bad catechesis which occurred during the late 1960's and 70's, and has made great efforts to reignite the holy fire of its faith since the turn of the Millennium.
One area in particular that certainly suffered during that time was in what could be called the presumption of the dead, where any mention of Purgatory and the need to pray for the deceased fell out of favor at funeral masses. More often than not they turned into eulogies or fond farewells for the deceased, and it was assumed that they were at peace and had no doubt moved onto a better place. If perchance a priest should preach the truth of the Catholic faith at a funeral mass, he may find himself barred from preaching as Fr. Don LaCuesta found out the hard way back in 2018.
This presumption of the dead has led to a diminishing of not just the significance of All Souls Day, but the Church's teachings on the Four Last Things as a whole, which undergirds the whole Hallowtide triduum. One area in particular that highlights the ignorance of the Church's teachings on the subject when it comes up around this time of year, is in the celebration of a similar holiday: Día de los Muertos or The Day of the Dead.
The celebration of the Day of the Dead can be seen as a perfect example of how the Church has successfully baptized those things that are true, good, and beautiful in the cultures that it has encountered.
The holiday dates back pre-Christian times in the southern parts of Mexico where people would honor and make offerings to their dead ancestors who they believed were watched over by the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl. Given the violent and bloody reality of Aztec worship it is no wonder that the Church, in addition to stamping out human sacrifice, directed the indigenous people's beliefs in a way that comported with the truth as revealed by Christ and his Church.
The baptizing of the original intent of the Day of the Dead was seen recently when I took my kids to confession at the local Our Lady of Guadalupe church where I had gone to and been an altar boy in my youth. There we saw the ofrenda, the table or altar some people have in their homes where pictures are kept of deceased loved ones for the Day of the Dead.
However, following the example of St. Odilo or Pope Gregory III, the ofrenda was not put in the main sanctuary where Christ alone is worshipped but in a side chapel. As my daughter and I looked at the many photos of people there, including my aunt and a cousin, she asked why we didn't celebrate Day of the Dead. I said that we did as I pointed to a sign on the ofrenda that said to remember to keep all these people in our prayers on November 2nd.
Of course, what she really meant was why we don't bring gifts, candles, and food to the graves of my deceased relatives, have an ofrenda in our home, or eat Pan de los Muertos (a sweat bread eaten on the holiday) and calaveras (skull-shaped candies) on the holiday.
Well, aside from the fact that going to visit the graves of even my immediate ancestors would require going to four different cemeteries and that here in Minnesota, November 2nd can be rather chilly at night to hold vigil at the grave site, there are other more important reasons.
We Walk that Fine Line
When it comes to participating in ethnic or cultural celebrations, it is important to use the same kind of discernment the Church has used in the past in sifting through what is and isn't in keeping with the Catholic faith. Some things can be converted to give honor and glory to God, and some things cannot. As Fr. Steve Grunow at Word on Fire has pointed out when it comes to the kind of pagan practices or rituals that many people have wrongly associated with Halloween and the rest of the Hallowmas or Hallowtide triduum,
“Those cults have long since passed away, along with the cultural matrix that once supported the world views that were the conditions for their possibility. You can’t just reinvent those cults without the culture that supported them.”
As was mentioned in the last essay, not only has the culture changed but so has the reality of creation itself, and so going back to pagan worship is just not possible.
At least that's the way it's supposed to be, but what if there does exist a cultural “matrix” that is capable of at least allowing for a pagan understanding of and participation in the Day of the Dead? Without a doubt, as was seen at Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Day of the Dead has been rightfully baptized into the Church's observance of All Souls Day, but unfortunately this is not always the case. In parts of Mexico there are cultures that have regressed from (or never truly embraced) its Catholic identity, where pagan aspects of the Day of the Dead are making a comeback.
Mictecacihuatl, may not be worshipped directly anymore but was the inspiration behind a popular figure in Mexican culture during the early 1900's, La Calavera Catrina (Lady Death) who has both religious and political significance. More recently, Catrina has morphed into the image of Santa Muerte, an anti-Mary figure with a huge cult following, especially among the drug cartels to whom “she” is their patron saint.
The cult has made great inroads into the United States, and is the reason why I have been, and anyone else should be, wary of commingling All Souls Day and Day of the Dead. Because in this case, the pagan trappings associated with the Day of the Dead, especially concerning the fate of the souls of the dead, are not a remnant of some long dead culture, but are alive and well today.
Good Movies, Bad Theology
If you want to see where the theological truths behind the Church's observance of All Souls Day and the pagan aspects of Day of the Dead part ways, look no further than two movies.
The first and most popular is Pixar's Coco, which to be honest is a charming and very moving film. It not only accurately portrays (speaking from experience) the reality of how a tight-knit extended Mexican family can be both the cause and cure of many of life's woes, but also depicts a modernized view of the afterlife that is in keeping with pre-Christian Mexican mythology.
The land of the dead is shown to be a ridiculous carbon copy of the realm of the living where the dead carry on as just they did when they were alive. Other than not being alive, being a skeleton, and worrying about being remembered with a picture by the living, there is no sense that the dead are in anyway lacking much of anything.
The other film is the 3D animated film The Book of Life made in 2014 which is more of a comic tale than sentimental. This movie doesn't even bother to pretend that the Mexico portrayed in the film is even remotely Catholic, and goes straight to portraying two Meso-american gods, La Muerte, a version of Santa Muerte and Xibalba a Mayan god of the underworld. These two figures play out their petty annoyances with each other by interfering with the lives of the other characters in the story. Including a character named Manolo, who visits the land of the dead where, like in Coco, he finds everyone having a ball in the afterlife.
In both of these films, we’re are shown view of the afterlife that is akin to a Hades or Sheol-type existence in that everyone there is dead, but that has been spiced up for a modern audience. The afterlife celebrated in these movies, in which the Day of the Dead both occur, are full of laughter and light. They are places where how one lived in their previous life has no bearing on the quality of existence they have in death. After all, in Coco the character of Ernesto de la Cruz (which mockingly means 'serious or earnest for the cross') poisoned his musical partner and stole his songs so that he could become a star. In The Book of Life, Xibalba tricks Manolo into thinking that the woman he is in love with is dead, and so he commits a passive suicide by allowing himself to be bitten by a poisonous snake so that he can join his beloved in the afterlife.
In both cases though, a deliberate suicide victim and an unrepentant murderer share the same afterlife, and in the case of de la Cruz a very opulent existence in the afterlife, with everyone else, including de la Cruz's victim. It is a testament to our self-centered “spiritual but not religious” era where people are so averse to judging and yet so afraid of death, that people are willing to accept a vision of the afterlife, where love and even justice is incidental, in exchange for feeling good about themselves in the here and now.
Keeping the Day Honorable
This is why on this day, we should “hold fast to the traditions we were taught” (2 Thes 2:15) about the Four Last Things, because the Church has received the fullness of divine revelation in the person of his son Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection Christ has pulled back the curtain of reality and shown us the truth about life and death.
The maps have been drawn by the Saints that have gone before us and they have carefully marked the path, we should do our best to follow their trail. In all other things, we should exercise prudence and discern carefully.
So when it comes to a holiday like Day of the Dead, bringing food and gifts for the dead in the genuine belief that it will comfort or make them happy in the afterlife is wrong and a form of idolatry.
However, if my daughter wants Pan de la Muerte, then we can stop by a local mercado run by my cousins and get a few loaves because I know who is making the bread, some of whom are daily mass goers. I will however, be far warier about taking or eating the calaveras candies or placing a hand-carved statues of skeletons that were made in Mexico, as I do not know the intention of the creator. Best to just leave them be.
We should instead remain true to the teachings and traditions of the Church, and celebrate All Souls Day in accordance with her truths. In Second Maccabees we learn that after a battle Judas Maccabeus took up a collection for a “sin offering” because he discovered that some of his men killed were wearing a pagan amulet. We are told that he was keeping the resurrection of the dead in mind and thus, “in doing this he acted very well and honorably” and “it was a holy and pious thought”.
On All Souls Day let us act equally honorably and remember the dead. Let us be holy and pious and offer up prayers for them, take up our own collect to purchase alms to give away, and fast for their sake as well. In this way we can develop not only the habit of remembering the dead, but our own eventual death as well, momento mori, and act accordingly.