Friday, September 10, 2010

"A Holy and Wholesome Thought"

In the calendar of the Augustinian Order, September 10 is the feast of St. Nicholas of Tolentine. My childhood parish in the Bronx was in the care of the Augustinians, and our parish church, prominently positioned at the corner of Fordham Road and University Avenue, was named after St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

Nicholas was born in Sant'Angelo in Pontano (a town of some 1500 residents today) in the province of Macerata in Central Italy, in 1245. As a young man, influenced by the preaching of the Prior of the local Augustinian monastery, Reginaldo da Monterubbiano, Nicholas joined the Augustinians. Much of his religious life was lived in Tolentino, Italy, where he died on this day in 1305. In his lifetime, he was known for his charity to the needy and the sick and for his evangelical preaching.

According to tradition, Nicholas, asleep in bed, heard the voice of a deceased Friar, who told Nicholas that he was in Purgatory, and asked him to celebrate Mass for him and the other souls there. For seven days, Nicholas did as he had been asked. Then the Friar appeared to him again to thank him and inform him that a large number of souls were now in heaven. Canonized in 1256, Nicholas was proclaimed patron of the souls in Purgatory. The large stained-glass window over the choir loft above the main entrance of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in the Bronx portrays St. Nicholas celebrating Mass for the souls in Purgatory. In my youth, that window was beautifully illuminated at night and thus really made an impression.

Sancta ergo et salubris est cogitatio pro defunctis exorare, ut a peccatis solvantur. (“It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” 2 Maccabees 12:46).

Prayer for the dead is an intrinsic part of Catholic life, rooted as our life is in our participation in the Communion of Saints, by which we are united with one another across time as well as space. That is why cemeteries are so important and visits to cemeteries such treasured practice of piety. Even apart from cemeteries, monuments and memorials abound to remind us of the dead and of our obligations toward them. Thus, in my former parish in Manhattan, one of the side altars, the Sacred Heart altar, honors in a special way the memory of those who died during the Second World War and the victims of the terrorist attack nine years ago on September 11, 2001.

In his book On the Care to be Had for the Dead, St. Augustine (354-430) wrote: Remembrance and prayers for the dead are signs of true affection when they are offered for the departed ones by the faithful most dear to them. There can be no doubt that these prayers help after life those souls who while alive merited them. Should some emergency prevent the bodies of the dead from being buried at all, should lack of facilities hinder them from resting in a holy place, prayers for the souls of these dead should not be neglected. The church has taken upon herself, as an obligation, prayers for the dead. … If these offices are paid to the dead, even by those who do not believe in the resurrection of the body, how much more should they be paid by those who do believe in the resurrection on the last day. Thus these duties toward a body which, although dead, is destined to rise again, are in a way a testimony of faith in that belief.

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