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Posted November 02, 2011 in Word Made Flesh:
Tombs and Toby

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

Here’s an unusual way of praying for the souls in Purgatory on All Souls’ Day and on other days as well.

"You Catlicks is spooky…"

I recognized him right away: my grandmother had warned me many times to "stay away from Toby Miller if you don’t wanna git beat-up good." And here was Toby Miller himself, his nose less than five feet from mine, and he was movin’ in fast.

(Those were the days when all sorts of nick-names were used for Catholics, and Catlicks or Catlickers were just two of the possibilities.)

"You Catlicks is spooky—walkin’ all around grave yards, tryin’ to raise the dead back to life."

I was sure that the length of my life was now dependent on the next words to come out of my mouth. Thank God my Guardian Angel "squeaked" my voice which defused the situation, and out came the neutral words, "Any of your family buried here?"

Long story short: Toby Miller and Pat McNulty became friends that year in Somerset, Indiana, where my grandparents lived, and before that summer was over I would hear my first "Catlick" spook story.

(P.S. At that young age I had no idea there were people anywhere on earth who thought this way about us. It was spooky!)

We were down at the creek hunting crawdads one day, when out of the blue Toby said, "My cousin and his daddy were on the way to the feed store down around Peeru one day, when my uncle pulled the truck off to the side of the road ‘n told him to shut up and watch.

"‘N he said there was a bunch a people in a cemetery next door to a church. They was singin’ in strange tongues ‘n the preacher was runnin’ all around wavin’ his arms tryin’ to raise the dead back to life.

"Later on my uncle said it was one a them Catlick churches ‘n we was all to stay away from you spooky Catlickers."

I had no idea what he was talking about and said something generic like, "I never did anything like that as a Catholic, Toby," and we went back to hunting crawdads. That was the end of it, and he never brought up anything "Catlick" again.

Then many years later, after I was ordained, I was helping out in a little country church on the feast of All Souls. The custom there was to process from the church to the cemetery next door while singing the Litany of All Saints (in Latin) and then the priest blessed the graves with holy water. Bingo!

"…there was a bunch a people in a cemetery next door to a church. They was singin’ in strange tongues ‘n the preacher was runnin’ all around wavin’ his arms…"

I think Toby’s uncle and his boy had come up on the celebration of the feast of All Souls in a little Catholic country church.

So after Mass that day I returned to the little cemetery next door to walk and pray about all of that and thus began what was to become a kind of "cemetery thing" in my life.

Cemetery thing?

Yep. I started visiting cemeteries.

Now that is spooky!

Not if you’re a believer in the Feast of All Souls and the Communion of Saints or simply like to enjoy a little peace and quiet now and then. Cemeteries are probably the quietest places on earth in this day and age.

Yeah, but it’s full a dead bodies! Who wants to hang around with the dead?

Well, at least none of them are on their cell phones, their I-Pods, or have their ears plugged up with the latest listening device, so I had their full attention as I walked and prayed. (Smile.)

But, in fact, they had been real people. They had real lives. And they each had a particular personal history, a history of life and family and love or tragedy. And, they all had a name that I could see on the tombstone, and I could call them by that name as I prayed.

You talk to dead bodies!

No, I talk to those who have died. It’s not like I’m doing a horror movie or at a séance "tryin’ to raise the dead to life." To walk reverently and quietly among the graves, speaking the names of those who are buried there and then pray for them can be a profound time of silence, a life-giving moment in faith.

If I’d have been a kid in good ole Somerset, Indiana, I definitely wouldn’t have played with you! And anyway, how can you walk around in a graveyard now where you don’t know anybody who’s buried there?

Well, besides praying for the dead—which just happens to be a very significant part of your Catholic faith in case you’ve forgotten—something unexpected, very blessed began to happen to me: I began to see family names that matched the names of families I grew up with.

And even though they were not the same people, I found myself praying for old neighbors and friends, people I had long since forgotten who were an important part of my own life as well.

And as I walked and prayed, I began to recall incidents which involved those people in my life and me in theirs. And once that happened "a place full of dead bodies" took on a whole new dimension: suddenly I was involved in communion with the saints!

Hey, I could find the last name of most of the people from my past in any grave yard around but none of them were saints as far as I remember, and most of them wouldn’t particularly want to be in communion with me anyhow. So, I’m with Toby on this one: I think the whole thing is spooky.

Well, you tell me! Recently I came upon a grave marked with the last name of Miller, and I began to pray and up came Toby.

Up came Toby! You mean, like outta the grave?

No, stupid, up came Toby’s name. And suddenly we were talking about all those precious childhood moments in Somerset, Indiana where my grandparents used to live and where Catlicks were a "strange breed" as one of my uncles used to say. That day, I believe Toby heard me in the cemetery as I walked and prayed.

Now that’s spooky, Reverend!

Oh? Where do you think this story came from, my friend: I had long since forgotten all about it until I saw that tombstone marked "Miller."

I think it was Toby’s way of telling me that my Catlick cemetery thing is actually quite wonderful, and it even brings him peace. Yes, I do think Toby can "hear" me when I pray just as I think all of the people I pray for can.

But don’t worry, I won’t bother you after you’re dead if I’m still around doing my cemetery thing.

Well… ah… maybe you could …ah … fill me in a little bit more on this All Souls and Communion of Saints thing just in case.

Just in case? Now, that’s what I call spooky!

 

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