By Bishop James D. Conley, S.T.L., is the apostolic administrator for the Denver Archdiocese.
“The sky was dark. The wind howled. The place felt cruel. Soldiers gambled and swore as the Savior of the World gave his life to save all people. Golgotha—Mount Calvary—outside the city, rocky and a place of death, could not have been an easy place to be. Especially as a beloved son, a beloved friend, hung dying. But as Jesus Christ hung on the cross at Calvary, two people stood with him. They stood at Calvary with love, devotion and commitment to the man who gave his life for ours.
Nearly alone, certainly devastated and perhaps confused, Mary and John stood at the foot of the windswept cross, watching in prayer as Christ gave his life.
“Woman,” said Jesus, “behold your son.” He turned to John, “Behold your Mother.”
Mary and John, writes Pope Benedict XVI, are the two who “do not fear to stand under the cross.” There, under the cross, Mary “witnesses the birth of the Church.”
St. Thomas Aquinas once observed that “there is nothing to unify God and the soul but the cross.” Each of us who wish to know Jesus must join Mary, the Mother of God and Mother of the Church, in prayerful contemplation at the foot of the cross.
The Church—the people of God—is those men and women who have had the grace and the courage to stand with Mary in witness to the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The cross changes us, it humbles us and it draws us together. Standing together at the foot of the cross makes us brothers and sisters in discipleship of the Lord Jesus.
We are connected, at the foot of the cross, to those who have gone before us in death, marked with faith in Jesus Christ.
It is not an accident that as we end the month of the rosary, we begin November with two days in which we remember the dead.
On Nov. 1, All Saints’ Day, Christians ask for the prayers of the saints in heaven, who intercede for us before God the Father. On Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day, we remember the dead in our own families and, in a particular way, those souls in purgatory, who are being prepared, even after death, for eternity with Jesus Christ.
On these two days, we remember in a special way that the Church is a communion of the living and the dead.
Mary is the Mother of the Church in heaven, in purgatory and on earth. And like all mothers, Mary reminds her family to pray for one another.
Mary calls the saints in heaven to pray for us on earth, and she calls us to ask for their prayers. Many Catholics choose a patron saint, whom they ask for intercession. The Holy Father has encouraged Catholic families to choose a family saint who can pray with the family in a regular way. Saints, our older siblings in the faith, offer us example, guidance and direction, as we pursue the Christian life.
Mary, the Mother of the Church, also calls us to pray for our brothers and sisters in purgatory. Purgatory is the experience of being purified of our worldly attachments to sin. Blessed John Henry Newman described purgatory as the final “combat” with our sinfulness. Mary reminds us to pray for our brothers and sisters engaged in prayerful combat with sinfulness, whether they are living or dead.
Many of us are not in the habit of praying with the saints or praying for the souls in purgatory. To many, praying with the saints or for the souls in purgatory, feels unnatural. But these prayers are the ones that bind together the Christian family. To begin to pray for the holy souls in purgatory is a reminder that the dead have never left us completely. To begin to pray to the saints is a reminder that we who hope in Christ will be in eternity with him. Our lives, and the lives of those we love, do not end at death. At death, our lives with Christ are only just beginning.
I encourage all of you, during the month of November, to pray for those who have died in your own families. And to pray with the saints in heaven. If this is difficult, ask Mary, the Mother of God, to pray with you. She is the mother of us all.
As we stand at the cross with Mary, we may grow in awareness of those who stand with us—the living and the dead. May we come to understand the great hope of the resurrection of the dead. And may we pray for and with those who have gone before us as disciples of Jesus Christ.