One of the many unanticipated graces of my conversion to Catholicism seven years ago has been the experience of engaging in the richness of ‘Catholic culture’. Often, it’s something that I find most people assume they are familiar with – to some superficial degree they likely are – and as a result of that limited exposure it tends to get dismissed out of hand as childish, boring, foolish, etc. Having formerly been one such person myself, I wanted to share a story about how I stumbled upon what I now consider to be a true gem of Catholic culture: All Saints Day.
It was at Mass on All Hallows’ Eve last year when I heard Father mention that a ‘plenary indulgence’ could be obtained by visiting a cemetery and praying for the dead during the octave of Allhallowtide. As someone who attended public school as a child, I will admit that the most prominent connotation of the term ‘indulgence’ for me has always been an illustration from my junior high social studies textbook, in which Martin Luther is featured pounding his theses onto the door of a church (which coincidentally was named ‘All Saints Church’) in Wittenberg, Germany. I was taught that indulgences were how the Catholic Church used to dupe illiterate peasants into thinking they could buy their way into heaven. Needless to say, I did not become Catholic because of some overwhelmingly persuasive theological argument in favor of indulgences. I did, however, find it somewhat strange that the priest had used the term (in public, at least). Did the Church still do this sort of thing?
Fortunately, it was not the first time I had encountered some aspect of the faith that I have had to wrestle with, and so by now I knew better than to trust my intuition. The lack of nuance in popular portrayals of Church history and teaching is initially something of a scandal to the skeptical and investigative catechumen. I did some background reading in the Catechism and on Catholic Answers about indulgences. I proceeded to review some of the arguments criticizing them. Unsure whether I could really wrap my head around the theological arguments pro et contra, I decided instead to simply follow C.S. Lewis’ lead in Mere Christianity (see Chapter 7 ‘Let’s pretend’, in Book IV) and give it the old college try.
The next day after work, my two eldest boys came with me to Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I went to Reconciliation afterward. The three of us then hopped in the van and drove the Henday around north Edmonton to Holy Cross Cemetery, where my dad is buried. It was a warm night, but very dark, and I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to be able to find the grave marker.
As we pulled into the cemetery, I was somewhat startled to see the grounds lit up in an eerie red glow. The boys oohed and awed in the back and I slowed down to try to make sense of what was going on. All throughout the graveyard there were hundreds or thousands of burning candles. It was also relatively busy, I suppose, for a graveyard – indeed, I could make out the silhouettes of probably a hundred or more people walking about in little groups among the flickering tombstones.
We slowly proceeded towards the general area in which I remembered burying Dad. Not being particularly familiar with cemeteries, I have to say that it was the prettiest I had ever seen – and not only seen, but heard. Stepping out of the vehicle, I was again pleasantly surprised to hear gentle singing and even laughter. I caught an Ave or two of the Lourdes Hymn in the distance. It sounded like most people were speaking Tagalog. The boys were silent, but wore delighted grins on their faces.
Remembering that I had some small candles and matches in the emergency bag of my van, I grabbed them along with the flashlight to try and find Dad's plot. We were on the outer perimeter of where the cemetery had been filled, and, while we had a good view of the show going on in the older part, it was difficult to see much around us.
“Dad, I think it was more over there,” my son offered. He was seven years old. I was skeptical he would really have even remembered the funeral, let alone the exact location of the grave in the pitch dark, but I passed him the flashlight anyways and turned my phone’s flashlight on.
“Okay, you can go look…careful not to step on the graves, though. Don’t go too far.”
The two boys ran off, bursting with excitement.
Within less than a minute they found my Dad.
“Yeah, that’s him,” I said. “Kenneth Paul Cavanagh.”
We stood there for a while in silence. I suddenly felt like I should have come here more often.
“Are you going to light those candles, Dad?”
I crouched down and fumblingly lit it. Looking up at the boys, I could see the reflection of candlelight bouncing in the eyes of their glowing little faces. I couldn’t help but laugh. I had been kind of worried that this might turn out to be a bit of a morbid Dad-fail, and had even second-guessed bringing them with me at all. But here they were, just as if it were Christmas morning.
After a while I asked, tentatively: “Do you guys want to sing some prayers?”
They nodded with enthusiasm. We had been practicing a few chants during Lent earlier in the year. We couldn’t remember all of the words by heart, so I pulled them up on my phone.
“Pater noster, qui es in caelis…”
After that we sang a Salve and then Attende, Domine (wrong time of year, I know, but an easy one for kids). We said the Apostles Creed together in English and prayed for our family members, especially my Dad. Then we just stood there looking at the lights for a while. None of us really felt like leaving.
Eventually I decided to be the grown-up and get my kids to bed. But on the way home I found myself gently chuckling over my former apprehension about indulgences. It had been such a memorable night, and I was now filled with an almost overwhelming feeling of gratitude for God's gift to us of the Catholic Church, which has endowed us with such timeless and beautiful culture.
Brendan Cavanagh is currently Director of Government Relations and Advocacy at the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association.