Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin. ~2 Maccabees 12:46
November 2nd marks the Commemoration of All Souls; the day in which the earthly faithful are called to pray for the faithful departed in Purgatory. Often considered connected to Pagan or other ritualistic ceremonies, All Souls Day is, in fact, a practice with roots in the early Church where the names of the faithful departed would often be posted so that Church members could pray for each soul by name.
All Souls Day follows on the heels of All Saints Day, November 1st, which itself is traced back to origins as early as the fourth century when St. Basil of Caesarea invited neighboring dioceses to share relics of martyrs and to join in celebrating those whose lives had been given for the Church. Eventually Pope Urban IV instituted the practice of using All Saints Day as a way to honor all saints, known and unknown, thus acknowledging our limited knowledge of how each person has responded to God's call upon his or her life.
While All Saints Day commemorates the lives of saints, known and unknown, All Souls Day commemorates the souls of all the faithful departed. Requiem Masses, or Masses offered for the dead, are celebrated. Following in the Jewish belief that the just, after death, joined their ancestors, it became a common practice to offer prayers and oblations so that their "sleep" with the Father would be one of peace, thus "eternal rest." St. Paul, himself a Jew who would have understood this belief and practice, referred to this when he spoke of those who are asleep in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:18). Indeed, we read of him praying for the dead when he says of Onesiphorus, who has died, May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day (2 Timothy 18).
Requiem Masses follow a particular format. For instance, the Celebrant for Requiem Masses wears black vestments as this color sincerely reflects the mourning of the Church proper towards its faithful departed. If All Souls Day falls on a Sunday, it is moved to the next day. The joyful and intrinsic nature of Sunday as a day of resurrection should not be diminished by the mournful prayers offered for the faithful departed. Nor should the faithful departed be deprived of the sacrificial nature and benefit of the Requiem Masses. Thus a Sunday All Souls Day becomes a Monday All Souls Day.
At the heart of All Souls Day in the Catholic Church is the belief in Purgatory and the very real likelihood that most of us, even in God's grace, will leave this earth in such a condition that we are not yet ready to experience the beatific vision. Catholics follow the Council of Trent's proclamation which in part states, that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar. The Council of Trent's declaration on the existence of Purgatory and the nature of the relationship between the faithful living and the faithful departed is, interestingly, a very clear and significant portion of the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur. After the Torah portion of Yom Kippur services, Yizkor is said. Yizkor, which means "remember," reflects the Jewish belief that a soul is unable to perform mitzvahs and thus relies on the merit gained through the charitable acts of the living. God calls His people to perform good deeds for one another.
So while we do not believe, nor have we ever believed, that by our works we can attain salvation for ourselves or our brethren, we do believe in responding to the call upon us to pray for one another, both living and dead. We follow St. Paul's example and understand that it is with humility and honor that we join our sufferings with Christ.
Consider, also, the second prayer of the Jewish Amidah (morning prayers), or Gevurot, which extols God's great mercy on the dead, His ability to resurrect, and His mercy upon the dead as they sleep.
You are eternally mighty, my Master, the Resuscitator of the dead are You; abundantly able to save.
He sustains the living with kindness, resuscitates the dead with abundant mercy, supports the fallen, heals the sick, releases the confined, and maintains His faith to those asleep in the dust. Who is like You, O Master of mighty deeds, and who is comparable to You, O King Who causes death and restores life and makes salvation sprout!
And You are faithful to resuscitate the dead. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who resuscitates the dead.
Weaving ourselves back in time, thousands of years before Christ, we are able to find the roots of our practice of praying for the dead. While we understand and fully embrace the salvation that is only available to us through Jesus Christ, we also understand His call upon our lives to join our meager offerings to His magnificent Cross and ask that He consider these offerings valuable for the poor souls of Purgatory. And so, on this All Souls Day, let us remember our faithful departed and ask that God's mercy be upon them.