The month of November is the time of year when the last of the leaves fall from the trees, the cold weather sets in, and autumn begins to transition into winter. This part of the cycle of the seasons, when plants go dormant, skies go grey, and cold winds begin to blow, reminds us that another year is coming to a close. It is not unusual at this time of year for us to grow reflective about our lives, the brevity of our time on earth, and our own mortality.
We are coming to the close of the Church year, as well, and throughout the month of November, the readings that we hear proclaimed at Mass remind us of the “last things” — death, resurrection, the last judgment, and our final fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. During this time of year, the Church helps us to reflect upon life, death and the world to come. In the beginning of November, we celebrated All Saints’ Day, a solemnity that reminds us of our communion with the Saints, who help us through their intercession, and serve as examples and guides to us as we strive to live lives of holiness. That celebration was followed by All Souls’ Day, a special occasion to remember those who have gone before us, and to pray that God bring them into eternal rest in his heavenly Kingdom. We are in communion with the living and the dead.
During this time of year, we are reminded that we are a pilgrim people. The Second Vatican Council makes reference to the Church as a “pilgrim Church.” We are a pilgrim people, ever in need of conversion and renewal as we make our way to our final destination:
“Already the final age of the world is with us (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11) and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way — it is even now anticipated in a certain, real way, for the Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect. However, until there be realized new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells (cf. 2 Pet. 3:13) the pilgrim Church, in its sacraments and institutions, which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and she herself takes her place among the creatures which groan and travail yet and await the revelation of the sons of God (cf. Rom. 8: 19-22).” (Lumen gentium, 48)
A pilgrimage, of course, is not about wandering aimlessly; it is a journey with a purpose. We live in this world with an understanding that we are not meant to be here forever. We are on a journey to the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God. All of our earthly pilgrimages to holy places, whether to Lourdes, Fatima, the Holy Land, Holy Hill, the Shrine of our Lady of Good Help or any variety of places, are reminders of this. We are an imperfect people in need of God’s transforming love, and we are on our way to our ultimate fulfillment. It is a journey that requires faith, prayer, a realization of our need for God’s mercy and a willingness to extend that mercy to others.
I was privileged to be a part of Archbishop Listecki’s nine-day pilgrimage to Italy in October, visiting many holy sites in Rome, Assisi, Siena, Florence and Orvieto. One of the sites, which left a deep impression on me during this trip, was a visit to the Catacombs on the Old Appian Way. The ancient Romans buried their dead outside the walls of the city. But it was only the rich and powerful who could afford elaborate tombs. Pagan Roman society did not put much value on human life, and cared little for the death of common people and the poor. The bodies of the poor were often thrown into ditches or rivers.
However, the early Christians had a different outlook on life and death. Trusting that each human person was created in the image of God, they believed that all people, rich or poor, were worthy of a dignified burial. Most Christians did not have money for elaborate burials, so they dug underground necropolises, known as catacombs, under the property of Christian land owners. The catacombs are tomb-lined tunnels; they are many layers deep and they stretch for miles. Many of the first to be buried in the catacombs were martyrs and saints. Christian symbols, such as the fish (a symbol of Christ) and the anchor (a camouflaged cross) are carved into the walls.
The early Christians did not look upon the catacombs as a place of mourning. Rather, because of their profound faith in the resurrection of the body and eternal life, the catacombs were seen as joyful places, which inspired hope among the living. The burial place marked the end of the earthly pilgrimage with all its struggles and suffering, and the beginning of new and eternal life.
The waning year reminds us that our time on earth is brief. As a pilgrim people, we must make good use of each moment to honor God through faith, prayer, works of justice and charity and a willingness to be reconciled with our fellow human beings. We are on a journey with a purpose — to enter fully into the Kingdom of God.