All Souls’ Day 2020 is poignant reminder of COVID-19

A temporary memorial for the victims of COVID-19 is seen near the armory in Washington Oct. 23, 2020. Each day the artist adds new flags to the installation as the death toll rises. As of Oct. 29, about 228,000 Americans have died from the disease. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

WASHINGTON—The feast of All Souls’ Day, when Catholics remember and pray for the dead, carried weighted significance this year when so many have died of COVID-19 and the pandemic’s restrictions have prevented usual funeral services and final goodbyes in person.

As of Oct. 29, about 228,000 people in the United States alone have died of COVID-19.

As that number continues to rise, it is no surprise that on All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2, many parishes and dioceses are remembering these deaths with Masses, prayers or special altars.

Conversely, because of pandemic restrictions, some dioceses also have had to cancel, or at least modify or livestream, their usual All Souls’ Day commemorations often held at Catholic cemeteries.

In the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone celebrated an All Souls’ Day Mass at St. Philip Neri Church in Fort Mill, in front of the columbarium. It can be viewed here.

Father Fabio Refosco, pastor of St. Philip Neri, said in addition to a livestream recording, the Mass was attended by about 300 people, all wearing face masks and observing social distance guidelines.

“Although the temperature was in the lower 40s, the sky was clear and a gentle breeze brought around our familiar fall smell,” Father Refosco wrote in an email to The Miscellany. He said Bishop Guglielmone observed that “every year the weather changes and the temperature drops on the day of All Souls Mass, but it never rains.”

Concelebrating with the bishop and Father Refosco was Father John Giuliani, pastor emeritus of St. Philip Neri. Assisting the bishop were Deacon Jon Dwyer, Deacon Steve Rhodes, and Oratorian Seminarian Charles Tupta.

In his homily, Bishop Guglielmone told the faithful that “the cemetery and columbarium are a reminder of the cycle of life and death, and serve as a peaceful place in which to celebrate and remember loved ones,” Father Refosco wrote, noting that many parishioners choose internment in a columbarium because of a strong desire to be laid to rest on the grounds of the church that they loved and served on earth.

Bishop Guglielmone also blessed the columbarium as the faithful responded to Psalm 25: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”

For those who were unable to participate in the live Mass on the feast of All Souls’ Day, a livestream recording is also available of a vigil Mass celebrated by Father Robert Higgins, administrator of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Anderson.

The vigil Mass was held at the gravesite of Father Aubrey McNeil at the Old Silverbrook Cemetery just behind the church on Nov. 1. Watch it at St. Mary of the Angels’ Facebook and YouTube pages.

Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone celebrates All Souls’ Day Mass at St. Philip Neri in Fort Mill on Nov. 2. (Provided)

In the Los Angeles Archdiocese, scaled back All Souls’ Day plans included, as in previous years, aspects of the Mexican celebration Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrated Nov. 1-2.

A vigil prayer service was celebrated by Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez on the evening of Nov. 1 in the outdoor courtyard of the Mausoleum of Calvary Cemetery and Mortuary in Los Angeles.

At the livestreamed prayer service, the archbishop blessed the eight altars on display paying tribute to those who died in the past year, a typical feature of Day of the Dead celebrations. One of the altars specifically commemorated COVID-19 victims.

For Concepción Sanchez, who is placing photos of her father on the COVID-19 altar, the archdiocesan event is a means of closure.

She said the Day of the Dead tradition has been something her Mexican family has done privately for the past six years since the death of one of her brothers, but this more public commemoration is something her whole family is happy she is doing since they did not get to say goodbye in person to their dad, grandfather and husband, Blas Mena Espinoza, who died a month and a half after contracting the coronavirus. He was 68.

One of Espinoza’s sons contracted COVID-19 in July at his work, from someone who was asymptomatic, and it quickly spread to most of the family, to other brothers and their mother, who also has diabetes. Espinoza went to the emergency room in August where he was intubated; he died at the hospital Sept. 8.

“We thought he would get better. We didn’t get to say goodbye,” Sanchez, a mother of three, told Catholic News Service Oct. 28. She plans to place photos of her dad and his favorite hobby, woodworking, on the altar.

“He wanted the family to be together all the time,” she said.

Sanchez said her dad always had a positive attitude and would say: “No matter what happens in life, always have a smile, say to God, ‘Thank you for all the good things and bad things.’ He would always have a smile; he would always joke with people and would never show pain.”

Sanchez chokes up when talking about her dad, who came to the United States in his early 20s and worked in construction. She said remembering him at this event is a small way to celebrate his life, but it also joins her family with others who have experienced a similar loss.

“In a bigger way, it’s for everyone, too,” she said, noting the COVID-19 altar will have a globe at the top representing all those around the world who died because of the coronavirus.

Sister Rosalia Meza, a Verbum Dei sister, who is director of the Office of Religious Education in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said even though the prayer service and altar blessings could not draw as many people as it has in previous years, it is still, or even more so, “very significant.”

“It’s simple with a lot of meaning,” she added.

She said some parishes in the archdiocese are doing beautiful things to honor the dead, which is a way to show that even when family members and friends cannot be together in person, “the people we love are remembered … the connection is there.”

“I think we are going back to simple things,” holding onto faith, when typical rituals and ways of being together to comfort each other aren’t possible, she said.

Sister Meza speaks from experience since her grandfather died in late October in Mexico and she was unable to attend his funeral.

Paulist Father Larry Rice, who lives in Austin, Texas, and is currently between assignments, said the Day of the Dead celebrations in Texas were curbed due to the pandemic, but even when they are simply done at home — the Catholic expression of the domestic church — these celebrations serve as reminders of connections between loved ones living and dead.

He said the church’s celebration of All Souls’ Day is a reminder each year that the “bonds of love and affection that we form in life do not dissolve in death,” quoting a prayer from the Mass of Christian Burial.

All Souls’ Day was initiated in the 11th century by St. Odilo of Cluny, the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey in Cluny, France, who urged those in his monastery to pray for the souls in purgatory every Nov. 2.

This practice spread to other Benedictine monasteries, and local bishops also began adopting it. A few centuries later it was instituted by the Catholic Church as a day of prayer for the souls in purgatory, following the Nov. 1 celebration of All Saints’ Day.

In the United States, there is one parish named after the initial All Souls’ Day promoter, St. Odilo in Berwyn, Illinois. On the parish website, it says that pilgrims who visit the church can obtain indulgences for the souls in purgatory.

By Carol Zimmermann

The Catholic Miscellany contributed to this report.