Memorial Day and the Catholic Perspective

What does Memorial Day have to do with Roman Catholics? Is it only a tribute with meaning for patriotic Americans? Can others throughout the world learn from the Roman Catholic approach to celebrating Memorial Day? Let the wisdom of Pope Benedict XVI guide us as we answer these questions.

Memorial Day was initially associated with the commemoration of soldiers who died during the Civil War. At first it was nonsectarian yet devoted to a belief that God has a connection with and a regard for the United States of America. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” reflects this attitude that all the dead of the war should be commemorated to God. Lincoln himself was a nonsectarian Christian, believing in Christ but not in a standardized, denominational Christianity.

Memorial Day is associated with civil religion, that is, a sense that an ill-defined God is concerned with the affairs of a people and nation. Memorial Day is a patriotic devotion to a nation and its God and uses various icons—imagery, words, music—to express this devotion and to remember not only soldiers but all deceased.

In Catholicism, there are many memorial days commemorating the lives of saints, those who sacrificed for others, giving of themselves for the sake of others. This sacrifice is not restricted to soldiers but all people who make an ultimate sacrifice for others, even if this sacrifice did not occur on a battlefield.

The sacrifices of saints are part of freedom, the freedom of Christ, whereby we are no longer condemned to slavery of sin. Those people who live lives conforming to Christ are living in freedom and fighting for spiritual freedom in the same sense as soldiers fighting for physical and material freedom for their country. Memorial Day therefore is honoring all people, worldwide, that have fought for the freedom of others, not just physical or political freedom, but spiritual freedom, by teaching and example conforming to Christ.

There are some humans who have not lived according to the freedom God offers, yet we remember them as well. Why? Their lives have significance for multiple reasons, for they are a part of God’s creation, and as humans they have struggled against themselves, exercising free will either in conformity with or in opposition to God’s will. All of creation, including humans, are a gift of God; we honor this gift when we recognize and pray in gratitude for their lives. But there is something more here. We pray for the departed because we believe our prayers help them. They are still a part of history, and our prayers connect us with them.

Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, in the book Eschatology as well as in his encyclical Spe Salvi, explains how the departed continue to be connected to our lives and to all human history. He writes that time besets us with problems, but we find help in the community of saints—the redeemed of all ages. “This signifies that the walls separating heaven and earth, and past, present, and future, are now as glass.” We find hope in the saved, in those who have “already achieved history of faith.” He argues that Scripture does not support the idea of a sleep of death that occurs between dying and the end of time; rather those who “died in Christ are alive.” He explains further that “God’s dialogue with us becomes truly human, since God conducts his part as man. Conversely, the dialogue of human beings with each other now becomes a vehicle for the life everlasting, since in the communion of saints it is drawn up into the dialogue of the Trinity itself.” (Eschatology, 9, 131, 159)

Ratzinger’s work provides a definitive explanation of purgatory, which adds new meaning to the thoughts and prayers for loved ones on Memorial Day. Humans experience memory time, per St. Augustine, shaped by our temporal experiences but not completely tied to them. When we die, memory time separates us from biological time, and we retain this memory for the “possibility of purification and fulfillment in a final destiny which will relate us to matter in a new way. It is a precondition for the intelligibility of the resurrection as a fresh possibility for man.” Memorial Day is a perfect time to ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to pray for them on their journey to righteousness. (Eschatology, 184)

Ratzinger argues that Jesus in the Incarnation bound Himself to human history. Furthermore, a person cannot be said to have reached his fulfillment if other humans suffer on account of him/her. “The guilt which goes on because of me,” he writes, “is a part of me. Reaching as it does deep into me, it is part of my permanent abandonment to time, whereby human beings really do continue to suffer on my account, and which, therefore, still affects me.” Moreover, “love cannot . . . close itself against others or be without them so long as time, and with it suffering, is real”—hence love ties us to the present and past suffering of humans even after our deaths. Purgatory is “unresolved guilt, a suffering which continues to radiate out because of guilt. Purgatory means, then, suffering to the end what one has left behind on earth—in the certainty of being definitively accepted, yet having to bear the infinite burden of the withdrawn presence of the Beloved.” (Eschatology, 187, 188, 189)

When we go to pray for our lost loved ones on Memorial Day, it is well to remember Ratzinger’s comment that “even when they have crossed over the threshold of the world beyond, human beings can still carry each other and bear each others’ burdens.” (Eschatology, 227)

As Pope Benedict writes in the encyclical Spe Salvi, meaning “In Hope We are Saved:”

The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today.

The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.

Pope Benedict’s teaching has had a profound impact on how I perceive Memorial Day. He is inviting me—and you—to take this day seriously, to pray for the departed, and to establish a communion that reaches beyond time and the grave.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 2nd ed. (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1988).

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Russell M. Lawson is the author of almost two dozen books and many more articles and essays. He has taught at schools in New England, Oklahoma, and Ontario. Dr. Lawson teaches and writes on scientists, explorers, and missionaries; the history of America, Europe, and the world; and the history of ideas, particularly Christian ideas. He has taught at the Pastoral Studies Institute at the Diocese of Oklahoma, and currently volunteers as a social studies teacher for adults seeking the GED at Catholic Charities in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire, and is a Fulbright Scholar. He blogs at

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