There I was. In the middle of this cemetery in Guadalupe, Nuevo León, Mexico. I was in the middle of my pastoral year at our parish in Monterrey, Mexico on this very date of All Souls Day, el Día de los Muertos. I was asked to help with the parish mass in the local cemetery and so when I arrived I was completely blown away at what I saw. The sheer amount of people in the cemetery was amazing. Every gravesite had people gathered around it, singing, laughing, conversing and eating as if their deceased loved ones were still alive and right there with them. People were selling food all around the cemetery and masses were taking place in almost every corner. Before this day, I would go to a cemetery and it would be very quiet and solemn, and I could feel this pall of death hallowing over everything. For the first time in my life I did not see that cemetery as a place of death, but as a place of life, for I had never seen such life in a cemetery before. It really got me thinking about what this day is really all about. For so long, I only thought of All Souls Day as a day in which we remember and pray for our dead and nothing else. Indeed, we certainly do this and it is an important part of this day. However, I realized in that moment that the heart of this day really is not about death at all, but rather about life.
It was a recurring theme that the Mexican people taught me throughout my year with them. The way they view death was just so different than the way I had been used to in my own experience. When they say that someone has died, they say that the person ”está muerta.” The verb “está” signifies that it is a temporary state; the person will not be dead forever. Because there is not a grim finality in death, there is not a great fear of it in the Mexican culture overall. When someone is dead, they simply say that he or she is “dead,” not “passed away” or “moved on,” as we might often say in our culture to lessen the intensity and finality that we believe death has. For the Mexican people, death does not have the ultimate power over them. They speak about it with a sense of hope that death does not have the final word, but there is something better that comes after it.
Today we have some beautiful Scripture readings that highlight this hope that the Mexican people have taught me. In our First Reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, we hear that God has destroyed death forever and he has done so in the person of Jesus Christ, who, as we hear in today’s gospel, gives us his Body and Blood so that we can live forever. These readings do not focus on death, but on life, the true life that God freely gives to us. If we truly have faith that God is the source of this life and that when we partake in the Eucharistic feast, Jesus grants to us this never ending life, we can live in the hope that beyond our earthly deaths, we will participate fully in this eternal life with God.
It is this hope that is at the core of our Christian faith, that through the passion and death of Christ, the power of death has been destroyed; it no longer holds that ultimate finality in our lives. Death no longer has the final word, no longer has the ultimate power over us, but only life, the life that comes from God. This mystery is not only at the center of our Christian faith, but is also the essence of our spirituality as Holy Cross Religious. We profess that the Cross is our only Hope; an instrument of death is the source of our hope in new life. If we really think about this core belief of ours, it seems just plain crazy! If we go out into the world and tell people that new life comes from death, redemption from suffering, they will look at us as if we have lost our minds. The mystery of our faith, the central tenet of our spirituality seems so illogical, so wrong. But that is the beauty of what Christ did for us. He turned the worst symbol of death into the source of the greatest life.
We know all this. We have heard this countless times throughout our lives; it is nothing new. The question for us today is this: Do we really believe this? Do we just consent intellectually to this tenet of faith or do we really believe in the profundity of our hearts and being that this is true? Have we been touched in our lives, affected deeply, changed forever by our experiences and ministries to give us the sure hope that life does come from death, resurrection does come forth from suffering? Our primary ministry as Holy Cross Religious in whatever we do is to be testaments of this truth to the world. We know very well that there are many people out there who do not believe this truth. There are people who undergo hardship and trial every day and they believe that this is the end; there is nothing better than can come from this; they are doomed to the finality of their situation. But we need to profess to them that such a manner of thinking is a complete and utter lie. No one is doomed to his or her condition of suffering and pain, but Jesus can take any difficulty and raise it up; he can take any hardship and bring forth life from it. He did it on the cross for good: death no longer has the ultimate power, only life. If we are not convinced that this is the core truth of our lives and that we can live in its sure and certain hope, that we can never be witnesses to the world of this powerful life that only Christ can give.
I find it moving that we come together as a community to celebrate this day. We remember all the great men and women in Holy Cross who lived before us who had this conviction in their hearts. They give us an example of a life lived in this hope and what a powerful witness this hope has in the world. For that reason, this is a day of renovation for us to spark anew that conviction within our own hearts. After mass today we will go to the community cemetery to visit those in our community who went before us and to be reminded of this conviction of life that they had. Our presence there will make what is usually a quiet, empty cemetery with the pall of death and finality over it into a place full of life, a place that celebrates life and the victory of that life over all sin and death. As we grow more into this conviction of the power that the life Jesus gives us has, we can more and more share in the powerful words of St. Paul:
“O Death, where is your sting?
Death, where is your victory?”
Death, all death, is swallowed up in victory, the victory of eternal life; the life in which we put all our conviction, all our confidence, all of our hope.
Deacon Ryan Pietrocarlo, C.S.C., professed his Final Vows with the Congregation of Holy Cross in August, and was ordained as a transitional Deacon along with his friend and classmate Deacon Michael Palmer. He is currently serving the St. Adalbert/St. Casimir Parish Community in South Bend. Deacon Pietrocarlo is originally from East Rochester, New York.