Día de los Muertos and the Prayer Over the Offerings

The Prayer Over the Offerings

When a Mass is offered for those who have died, the prayer for the dead is part of the offering the faithful bring to the altar. During Eucharistic liturgies dedicated specifically for the dead, what the Church prays for is discernible in the prayer over the offerings—that is, the prayer said over the bread and wine before consecration. By more closely attending to these prayers, we can better sense what we confess in faith regarding the communion between the living and the dead through the Eucharist.

On the day when the Church reveres the glory of all the saints and especially the anonymous saints—the Solemnity of All Saints—the Church prays this prayer over the offerings: “May these offerings we bring in honor of all the Saints be pleasing to you, O Lord, and grant that, just as we believe the Saints to be already assured of immortality, so we may experience their concern for our salvation. Through Christ Our Lord.” In this one prayer the Church makes a concession and a request. She concedes that there is no need to harbor concern for those celebrated in this Mass—both those whose names are known and the anonymous saints—for they already share in the eternal glory of God. The request, therefore, is not for them but for ourselves: that we may “experience their concern for our salvation.” Celebrating the saints means celebrating those who concern themselves with our good. We might imagine Thérèse of Lisieux or Teresa of Calcutta concerning themselves with the well-being of those whom they have loved in this life, whom they continue to seek in Christ’s mercy. They pray for us, and we pray that their prayers may be fruitful.

On the next day, All Souls’ Day—when the Church commemorates all the faithful departed—the Church’s prayer over the offerings changes: “Look favorably on our offerings, O Lord, so that your departed servants may be taken up into glory with your Son, in whose great mystery of love we are all united. Who lives and reigns for ever and ever.” This prayer is offered for those about whom we do still exercise concern. It is a prayer of commendation: we entrust to the mercy of God those whom we have no power to help on our own. To ask the Lord to take our loved ones into that “great mystery of love [in whom] we are all united” is to ask not only that those we love may be filled with new life but also that that life may be filled with concern for our own salvation. For the faithful departed to share in the glory the saints enjoy, they must come to fully desire what the saints desire: the salvation of others, including ourselves. In this sense, we who offer this Mass beg that, in his mercy, the Lord may make the faithful departed hasten in mercy toward us who now pray.

We can hear something similar in the prayer over the offerings at two Masses offered for particular loved ones who have died. First, at a funeral outside Easter time, the Church prays over the offerings in this way: “Be near, O Lord, we pray, to your servant (N.), on whose funeral day we offer you this sacrifice of conciliation, so that, should any stain of sin have clung to him (her) or any human fault have affected him (her), it may, by your loving gift, be forgiven and wiped away. Through Christ our Lord.” The small sacrifice of bread and wine that the faithful present upon the altar is taken up into the tremendous sacrifice of Christ’s own Body and Blood, given for us. This is the “sacrifice of conciliation,” through which those who are separated from God by sin are reconciled to God by the love of the Son. In a similar way, the faithful bring their prayers for their departed loved one to the altar in hope that he or she will be joined to Christ in his mercy. The small sacrifice of prayer meets the tremendous sacrifice of Christ’s death. Those gathered in prayer have no power to bring back together what death has separated—all they can do is offer their need and their desire to the One who took on our death and rose again on the third day. This one humble, magnificent act of the believing community commends the deceased loved one to the Lord’s care. In doing so, the community asks that “any stain of sin” or “human fault” be forgiven and wiped away. These stains and faults are all ways of failing to entrust ourselves into God’s hands, and they include the ways we have harmed one another. When the Church prays for this healing, she prays that the one who has died be healed of their lack of trust and charity, and that the members who commend this person also be healed of their failures to live together in communion. In this liturgy, the faithful pray that the lack of love in which the separated member and those still living have indulged may be healed and transformed into mutual concern for one another.

The second occasion when a Mass is offered for a particular loved one is on the anniversary of death. Over the offerings on this day, the Church prays with these words: “Look with favor, we pray, O Lord, on the offerings we make for the soul of your servant (N.), that, being cleansed by heavenly remedies, his (her) soul may be ever alive and blessed in your glory. Through Christ our Lord.” The “heavenly remedies” mentioned here deserve special consideration. Weren’t these heavenly remedies administered to the disciples who encountered Jesus in the forty days after his Resurrection and before his Ascension? Aren’t these what Jonathan Edwards led his congregation to imagine and long for when he preached on heaven as a world of love? The heavenly remedies cure us, completing in us what we lack now in full: impassibility, subtlety, agility, and clarity—the properties of glorified bodies. In the small offering the living make, we ask the Lord to make our departed loved ones fit to share in his glory, just as he began to transform his disciples when he encountered them in the light of the Resurrection. We pray that Christ’s glory will become their glory, so that they may become as he is. This prayer, in line with the other prayers over the offerings that have come before it, is a prayer for the wholeness, wellness, and perfection of the departed loved one, whose perfection will make them capable of perfect communion with us in Christ. The “heavenly remedies” we ask the Lord to bestow upon them will also need to be bestowed upon us who remain, so that together we may be well and whole.

These prayers over the offerings school us in what to pray for and what to desire for our beloved dead. Just as we who bring forth the bread and wine have no power on our own to make these humble gifts into the Body and Blood of Christ, so too do we who pray for our dead lack the power to raise them to new life and join them in everlasting communion. Only the Lord can give his Body and his Blood with the bread and the wine, and only he can give the communion we need and desire. It is the responsibility of those who remain to ask. Seeking communion with our loved ones in the Lord is itself the beginning of the communion we seek, because the Lord is faithful and gives what he promises.

Popular Piety and the Eucharist

The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, §11; cf. CCC, §1324). The Christian life may thus be understood as a pilgrimage from grace to grace—departing from the encounter with the Lord and journeying toward the encounter with the Lord. In the fullness of time, that pilgrimage is complete when God is all in all, and the Communion of Saints is whole. The encounter with the Lord is the beginning, the end, and the fulfillment of the Christian life.

Far from canceling out popular and pious religious devotions, the encounter with the Lord in the Eucharist renews the vibrancy of such devotions and gives them their ultimate meaning. As the Second Vatican Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) instructs:

The Christian people’s devotions, provided they conform to the laws and norms of the Church, are to be highly recommended. . . . [S]uch devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it, and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them (§13).

The liturgy does not exhaust Christian spirituality but rather informs and uplifts authentically Christian spiritual customs and practices. These customs and practices vivify the “life” of which the Eucharist is the “source and summit.” In other words, there is an actual life in between each Eucharistic liturgy. It is that life that emerges from the end of the Mass, and it is that life that is included in the offerings carried up to the altar for consecration. When Monica instructed her son Augustine to unite his prayers for her to the Eucharistic offering, she passed along a practice she herself had learned.

For years and years while living in North Africa, Monica practiced a custom drawn from the traditional cult of the ancestors common to the peoples of that region. She followed this custom not as a pagan but as a Christian, meaning that when she brought pottage, bread, and wine to the tombs of the martyrs, she did so as a way of remembering and praying for the beloved dead. Others who followed this custom often did so in large part to indulge heavily in the wine themselves, which made the custom, in its more pagan form, something of an excuse for drunkenness. But when Monica followed Augustine to Milan and thus came under the tutelage of the local bishop, Ambrose, he instructed her to amend her former practice precisely because it was commonly associated with those irreverent indulgences.

Because Monica trusted Ambrose and his teaching so much, she willingly changed her long-held practice of bringing tokens to the tombs of the dead. She did not, however, give up her desire to remember and pray for the dead; instead, as Augustine recalls, “she had now seen the wisdom of bringing to the martyrs’ shrines not a basket full of the fruits of the earth, but a heart full of more purified offerings, her prayers. In consequence, she was now able to give alms to the needy [with the goods she previously reserved for the dead], and it was also possible for the sacrament of the Lord’s Body to be celebrated at these shrines.”

The interaction between Ambrose and Monica here is an example of what Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches: the people’s devotions are to be highly encouraged, but they must also be chastened by and directed to the Eucharistic offering. From the customs of her people, Monica brought forth a committed concern for the beloved dead. Ambrose then taught Monica how to amend her practice for a more fitting expression of the Christian faith, without in any way dampening her piety. In fact, Ambrose sought to enflame Monica’s piety by ordering it to the Lord’s own sacrificial offering and almsgiving.

Monica, a Catholic layperson, brought the strong devotion to the beloved dead north from Africa to the Church in Milan in the fourth century; today, for the Church in the United States, it may well be that the renewal of the devotion to the dead comes north from Mexico.

The Day of the Dead

The popular religious celebration Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is founded upon and expresses a view of life (and death) that is at odds with what has become common in “modern,” post-Enlightenment cultures. The underlying view in Día de los Muertos is “an understanding of death not as the opposite of life but as an intrinsic part of life,” so that “the enemy of life is not death but individual life . . . isolation from loving relationships.” The theologian Roberto Goizueta goes so far as to say that “what, for dominant U.S. culture, is the human ideal (‘the rugged individualism’) is, for Mexican Americans, the most inhuman form of existence.” Día de los Muertos is not, therefore, a singular event of remembrance but rather an expression of an entire approach to life—one based first on relationship rather than on individualism.

When the Spanish first brought Catholicism to central Mexico in the sixteenth century, the Christians and the Indigenous peoples kept some customs that resembled each other. Along with honoring the dead through All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and Masses offered for the dead, Spanish Catholics also honored the dead in their homes and in cemeteries. Moreover, bread prepared for All Souls’ Day was offered as alms to the poor: “Communion between the living and the dead took the form of mutual assistance.”

And yet “the ritual importance of honoring the dead was far greater in Indigenous than in Catholic practice.” The Indigenous peoples engaged in long periods of preparation to honor their dead so that particular occasions for such honor were preceded by seasons of concerted attention and planning. Living in relationship with the dead was common to life overall rather than a facet of occasional observance. This approach to honoring the dead and the ethos that underlies it are still clearly evident in places like Oaxaca, Mexico, where Día de los Muertos thrives. In such places, death is viewed not as the end of life and the point of severance of the dead from the living but rather as a change in the circumstances of those who live together in relationship. The energy to honor the dead and the holistic investment in living in communion with the dead now contrasts sharply with the drift toward “atomized individualism” that Philippe Ariès detects in his famous historical study of approaches to death and dying. This approach is also at odds with the “fear of permanent commitment” that Pope Francis bemoans (Amoris Laetitia §53), as well as with “the mounting callousness” toward others that Pope Benedict XVI decries.

It is not a Christian culture that opposes the energy for and commitment to communion with the dead; rather, it is a consumer culture that stands in opposition. The dominant culture in places like the United States is often a consumer culture that is predicated on the primacy of the individual over the community, the haves over the have-nots, the living over the dead, and accumulation over participation and mutual responsibility. The radical communal orientation of Día de los Muertos is a gift to the Church that corrects the creeping influence of consumerism and individualism. What the Church offers as a return gift is found in directing the energy and commitment for honoring the dead to the communion of Christ in the Eucharist.

The observance of Día de los Muertos is often met by Church authorities with varying levels of disapproval, mainly because the customs appear superstitious or incompatible with liturgical disciplines. As with Ambrose and Monica, though, the issue ought not be the food, drink, and other tokens of ritual observance but what these things are ultimately used for. One traditional aspect of Día de los Muertos concerns welcoming the dead back into the households of the living; however, as we have seen throughout the past two chapters, the key in authentically Christian exercises of communion with the dead is the willingness of the living to go toward the dead in Christ rather than trying to pull the dead back to where we are. What, then, is the meaning of specific customs in Día de los Muertos? Roberto Goizueta puts it like this:

The function of home altars, food offerings to deceased relatives, visits to gravesites on Día de los Muertos . . . is precisely that of cementing bonds that link us to one another and that therefore define each of us as human persons. If a person is, at least in part, a physical, historical being, so too must the ties that bind us to one another be, at least in part, physical and historical.

The physical, historical stuff between the living and the dead matters because the body matters. God creates us in solidarity and raises us, in Christ, as whole and complete persons. To be a “person” means to be relational. The tokens that accompany Día de los Muertos are of course subject to commodification, consumerism, and mere spectacle—just like all religious devotions—but the central insight in gathering mementos of and even offerings for the dead is, as Goizueta points out, to make manifest the ties that bind us, which are stronger than death. This is a profoundly Christian insight that is proven true in Christ. This promise of Día de los Muertos is fulfilled when the longing and concern for the dead is directed, in the end, to the Eucharist.

Without learning from and following—even in an adapted fashion—religious devotions like Día de los Muertos, we may well find ourselves bringing too little as an altar offering at the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As with Monica and Augustine after her, the duty of Christians who seek communion with the beloved dead is to bring our own sacrifices of prayer and charity to the altar and ask the Lord to give us the communion we cannot create ourselves. Then, upon receiving the gift of the Lord’s communion in the sacrament, we have the duty and the privilege to live as though that communion truly is the rule of life.

If the ritual observances associated with suffering and death that are common to Mexican and other Latino cultures appear to some as merely the glorification of the macabre, then the fundamental insight and conviction behind these observances have likely been lost. These are celebrations not primarily of death but of the power of life that conquers death. That life comes by way of relationships, community, and mutual concern, and it vanquishes isolation, autonomy, and mere individual existence. The longing for and implicit belief in such life arose from the traditional religious customs where the beloved dead were not cast off to oblivion but held close to the living. In the person of Christ, that longing and belief receive a response in the Word made flesh. To hold to Christ in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood but to fail to seek in him communion with the beloved dead would mean a failure to seek in him what he promises.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from Our Faithful Departed: Where They Are and Why It Matters by Leonard J. DeLorenzo and is reprinted with permission of the Publisher, Ave Maria Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image by Andy Giraud from Pixabay.


Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D. serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at Notre Dame. His book on death, desire, and the communion of saints is Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints.

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