25 November 2008

Dishonoring the Dead

The Negros Times has suspended publication for the time being. here is the column I wrote for 17-18 November. I had originally written in for 3-4 November, in the context of the observance of All Saints and All Souls here in the Philippines. A 'memorial park' is a privately owned cemetery run as a business.

Under the Acacia

By Father Seán Coyle

Dishonoring the Dead

I don’t know whether it’s ignorance of Philippine culture or justifiable outrage that made me upset the last week of October when I saw a half-page advertisement in a Bacolod newspaper inviting people to a “Celebration of All Saints’ Day” by playing bingo and engaging in parlor games at a memorial park in the city. The owners reminded us that there would be “Peryahan” and Merry-Go-Round Rides the whole afternoon.

And, yes, the blessing of graves was fitted in before bingo and the Holy Mass between the parlor games and the evening “Cultural Show”, no doubt to satisfy the fanatics who think that a cemetery is a sacred place where we Catholics pray for the dead.

The first time I blessed graves on November 1 or 2 in the Philippines was in a mountainous area of the municipality of Tubod, Lanao del Norte in 1972. We were accompanied by members of the Philippine Constabulary, as the civil war that erupted the previous year in the Lanao and Cotabato provinces, instigated by politicians with Christian and Islamic backgrounds, had abated only some months before. Thank God, there was no trouble.

In subsequent years I blessed graves in parishes in Misamis Occidental, in Karomatan, now Sultan Naga Dimaporo, Lanao del Norte, where about half the people are Christians and half Muslims, and in Lianga, Surigao del Sur. In most places the busiest day was November 1 but in Lianga everything took place on November 2, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, as the Church officially designates it. I have never understood why the Feast of All Saints has, in effect, become All Souls’ Day or Fiesta Minatay, the Feast of the Dead, as it’s often called by Ilonggos, in the Philippines.

But in all of these places the emphasis was on blessing the graves and praying for the dead. Many had a picnic also. In Lianga we had Mass in the church at 6 in the morning. After breakfast everyone went to the cemetery where the priest celebrated Mass again and the blessing of the graves took place in reasonably orderly fashion. By noon everything was finished and, following local custom, the priest lunched at the pantheon where the relatives of the mayor were buried.
But in none of these places did I ever encounter bingo or parlor games or merry-go-rounds or a so-called “cultural show”. There was a sense of joyful hope, because of our faith as Christians in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and because of our Catholic practice of praying for the dead. The Roman Martyrology or official list of saints of the Church, on which our almanake is based, says of November 2: On this day is observed the commemoration of the faithful departed, in which our common and pious Mother the Church, immediately after having endeavored to celebrate by worthy praise all her children who already rejoice in heaven, strives to aid by her powerful intercession with Christ, her Lord and Spouse, all those who still groan in Purgatory, so that they may join as soon as possible the inhabitants of the heavenly city.

In other words, the whole point of All Souls’ Day, even if it is observed on All Saints’ Day by most Filipinos, is to pray for the souls in purgatory, in accordance with Catholic teaching and practice. This doesn’t rule out a sense of joy or even having a picnic at the cemetery. After all, the heavenly banquet is a wonderful image from the Bible.

Pope Benedict writes beautifully about this in Spe Salvi, No.48:
Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve.

And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God's time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded.

It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, All Souls’ Day, Fiesta Minatay, call it what we will, is an ancient Catholic practice. No owners of a memorial park have the right to hijack it and distort it for commercial purposes. The business people of Cebu, in just over 20 years, have distorted and all but destroyed the Sinulog, a centuries-old celebration in honor of the Sto. Niño, the Child Jesus.

Are the people of Bacolod going to allow commercial interests to dishonor our dead and undermine our Catholic faith?

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