In recent time, I received a letter from an aunt who is dear to me. She asked me to offer Masses to pray for and in remembrance of our ancestors. In the letter, she said that my grandfather would be proud that I remember those who have gone home to the Lord often because “you are continuing what is truly dear and near to your grandfather’s heart.” That letter really touches my heart as she reminds me what was really important for my grandfather — as his legacy and hope for the future generations — and to be able to keep his legacy alive with what I do as a priest and as a member of the family.
My grandfather would always remind me — very often: “Always remember those who have given you life and pray for those who have passed away.” As a Vietnamese, family is very important. Moreover, for my grandfather, the remembrance of those who have given us life and prayers for those who have died is crucial because they remind us of the deeper spiritual communion with one another. Death cannot separate us from one another because we are always connected through and in the Lord, even if we are no longer present to each other physically. This sense of communion reminds us that we are not born of someone or from somewhere randomly. Our parents have given us life, and for the most part, we are tied and connected to a family tree of many people who have chosen that gift of life as well. Where we are today is grounded in and through the people that had gone before us. Where we are today is a gift from the people who were parts of our family and our lives. Where we are today is not a coincidence, for God had providentially given us a place where we belong that is deeply rooted in the gift of life.
Perhaps I am too traditional or culturally different, but it is sad to see many of our post-modern American families being disconnected from their greater roots. The nuclear, atomic families are becoming too busy without having enough layers of support. It is getting harder for one to find in a traditional family setting where grandparents, relatives, and extended members are present and parts of normal life. Will it always be a perfect relationship with so many people involved? The answer would be no, and there would be a lot of differences, arguments, and creative tensions. However, that interconnectivity reminds young people that they are not alone and their lives are deeply rooted. Second, it teaches them, through the creative tensions, that life is not perfect and relationships are messy but they are important for people are important. This is important nowadays because too many people are walking out of relationships when things get hard. When we see and learn from the messiness of family interconnected relationships, we know that we are called to love even though we do not always agree or like certain people.
Growing up in a big family or one that is interconnected with loved ones and neighbors teach much about sacrifices and compromises since no one would ever get what they want. It can teach children that life is not perfect or as expected, especially that even when human relationships and interactions are not perfect, we still choose to love and forgive. A few years back, I read in a psychological and sociological journal that many young children lack the capacity of dealing with loss because they lack the necessary interactions with previous generations who can teach them what is important and needed, as well as to embrace loss through their own personal lives and wisdom. Second, growing up and living with grandparents or older adults who are struggling with the loss of mobility and decrease of health also teach children the natural parts of growth and decay within one’s own lifetime. Most of the people around the world grow up and are surrounded by many of their immediate and extended family members. Together, the family helps raise the children since they provide diverse, creative, and complex factors that cannot just be taught at school. Human interactions between different generations and people help enrich our children’s ability to deal with things that are not simply comprehensible, achievable, or controllable with information or humanistic factors. When children grow up in an interconnected and communal setting, they also learn to value relationships and be able to choose that more than productivity or effectiveness. I believe this is what truly lacking in America, and I hope many of our educators, parents, and social influencers can understand its essential and foundational impact.
Lastly, I think that remembering and praying for the dead is important because it reminds and connects us with those who had gone before us and given us life. I think many of us are spiritually ahistorical and disconnected. When someone died, many tend to simply drop them off their memories and prayers after a while. They might tell stories or recall memories of the people, but there is a real lack of spiritual interconnectedness that is lacking in our American culture that many others around the world cherish so well. I know that it is important in my Vietnamese culture (and of other family-oriented cultures, too). Perhaps it is more important for me because my grandparents instilled this spiritual and personal practice unto their offsprings. We would gather together to celebrate the memorials of our ancestors and to pray for them, the poor souls in purgatory, those who are dying, and those who have no one to pray for them. This understanding of intergenerational, human, and spiritual communion and interconnectivity remind me that we are never alone for we were always born into a family; therefore, it is important to pray for those who are parts of who we are. I am speaking in a bigger and spiritual sense, too, because God has given us a human and spiritual family that is beyond blood or familial connections. We are parts of this greater human family, for we are all redeemed and saved by the blood of the Son of God, and called together as the Church. That is why it is important to know that, even in our prayers, we cannot just be or pray alone or for ourselves.
There are people who pray for us that we do not know. They intercede for our needs. We can feel these spiritual powers lifting us up in our hardest times. That was not coincidental. The power of prayer that helped us in our trials and journey of life comes from those who are offering their sufferings, willing to remember and pray for someone who is struggling, and personally unite themselves with us through the providential love of God even though they might not know us. The people who are now with God (even those in the purgation period) are also praying for us, living up to their called state of life and spiritual communion with us as holy intercessors. Are we praying with them and for them in our prayers? Are we learning to embrace and intercede for others when we come to God or are we too preoccupied with our own goods and problems? It is a beautiful practice and personal offering of our love when we choose to remember and pray for others, especially those who are in need of our spiritual assistance.
My grandparents taught us, and it is important for me as a priest, to assist the poor souls in purgatory who are going through their purgation period with our prayers, to pray for those who have no one to remember or pray for them, and especially those who have lost their ways, hopeless, and are dying today. They are in need of our prayers more than ever! We might never know them, but we can know that our prayers connect us to them in a very personal and intimate way beyond human knowledge, understanding, or ties. They taught me to pray for our ancestors (and the poor souls) when I go to Mass. Now that I am a priest, while my grandfather was alive, he reminded me often to offer Mass in remembrance of our ancestors. This was important for him, and now it is also important for me, for it is an honor for me to carry on his legacy and what is truly dear to him. Even though I might not know my great-great-grandparents or previous members of our family, I know that my grandparents loved them and cared for them that they have taught us to remember and pray for them. Therefore, as a member of the family and priest, it is an honor to remember and pray for those who had gone before us and given us life. If they do not need our prayers, the merits and graces flowing from the personal and loving acts will benefit and be offered to others by them.
We are not alone and is never alone when we recognize our communion and interconnectedness to the greater family in faith. I hope my reflection today will help you see the importance of our spiritual sacrifices and prayers, lifting up those who are united with us in and through Christ. When we pray for others and remember those who have gone before us, we are greatly comforted that by the fact that we are not alone. Just as we are praying for them, there are many others praying for us. How beautiful it is to intimately love and understand our communion with one another in Christ Jesus, through the working of the Holy Spirit, by the love of the Father. I pray that you can experience, or at least begin to experience this deeper sense of belonging and being loved when we remember and pray for one another. May we take comfort in knowing that, even in our darkest days, we are never alone for we are always lifted up by others and are called to pray for those who are dear to us and are in need, too. Let us remember those who have given us life and pray for those who have gone before us.