DE PERE, Wis. (CNS) - With statues depicting the Crucifixion as a backdrop, middle school students from Our Lady of Lourdes School in De Pere, joined by parishioners, attended an All Souls' Day Mass at Mount Calvary Cemetery.
As part of the celebration Nov. 2, students marked Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), traditionally observed in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Many students had their faces painted as a sign of embracing death as part of the cycle of life.
"In our school's Spanish program, kids not only are learning the Spanish language, but the culture as well," said Norbertine Father James Baraniak, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, who celebrated the liturgy.
As Norbertine Father Hugh Barbour pointed out in a column for Catholic Answers, many customs are associated with Dia de los Muertos, such as visiting the cemetery and tidying up graves. Altars also are erected at cemeteries to share a meal by the graves of loved ones.
"These are all fine customs and go back all the way to the earliest days of the Christian faith," Father Barbour wrote. "The main point of the day is prayer, works of mercy, and penance for our dear dead, combined with the strongest means of helping them reach their heavenly homeland: the holy sacrifice of the Mass."
Father Baraniak explained that Dia de Los Muertos and its customs offer an important lesson for Catholics. "This culture reminds us that we keep their (loved ones') memory alive forever," he explained.
Celebrating Mass in the parish cemetery also was a way to make that connection with deceased loved ones, the priest said.
"As I was here earlier this morning, I looked at all of the names on these headstones," he said. "Guess what, dear students? Your names are on these headstones. Not necessarily your first names. ... but I've seen the headstones of your parents, your grandparents, our fellow parishioners."
Father Baraniak offered two main points about All Souls' Day.
"While all of these tombstones circle this sacred object behind me, this memory of Christ on the original Mount Calvary, you'll notice that all of these tombstones face in this direction," he said, pointing to the east.
"All of these graves point this way and by great design. Look at that sun, the rising sun. ... All of your parents and grandparents are buried in this direction, so that they face the rising sun.
"When Christ shall come again, all of a sudden, we all rise up. It's like getting out of bed in the morning to face the rising sun, S-U-N. The rising son, S-O-N, greets you. It not only brings light and warmth into your day, but nothing will hold Jesus Christ down. His light scatters the darkness."
Father Baraniak pointed to the image of Jesus on the cross behind him, which was missing its left arm because of a lightning strike.
"I'm kind of embarrassed by that image of Jesus on that cross without his arm," he said. "But I want you to remember forever that Jesus needs a hand. I don't mean that (clapping). ... Jesus has your hands to reach out to somebody else, to embrace somebody else."
"Even before we get to heaven and the communion of the saints, we are saints in the making," he said. "That requires us to literally reach out to one another in kind and generous loving ways."
The names found in a cemetery and the stories behind them give visitors a lot to consider, Father Baraniak added.
"It's amazing all you can learn in a cemetery, huh? All the beauty that is in this holy place and you've come to acknowledge it here today and to perpetuate its goodness," he said. "Continue to reach out your arms in a loving way to one another and the wonderful work begun by Christ will be completed when we enter the communion of saints ourselves."
Following Mass, students placed flowers on graves around the cemetery. Father Baraniak spent time with families visiting graves of loved ones and blessing the graves with holy water.