Are you mourning a loved one who died recently – or years ago? Are you devastated because you could not be with your loved one when they died because of the pandemic? Are you in despair because you failed to apologize or thank someone who has died?
If so, you are not alone. Mourners with concerns like the above – and a lot more – represent just a few of the many pilgrims Father Paul Denizot and his translator/assistant Martine Courvosier minister to each year at the Shrine of Our Lady of Montligeon in the Normandy region of France. The 130-year old basilica is a world center of prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory and a place of healing for millions – and the good news is that you don’t have to travel to France to get the benefits. (Watch “EWTN Live” with Father Paul and Martine, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXVYll-coDk&t=3s)
Overview of Our Catholic Faith on Death
“On earth we suffer [when a loved one dies]; that’s normal. We can’t touch or hear them,” says Father Paul. “But the relationship of love is not ended by death. [As Lumen Gentium 49 says], the relationship between the dead and the living is ongoing. The relationship can grow beyond death. This bond of love goes on. We can pray for them and they pray for us. When we [join] them [in heaven], it will be as if we never lost them. That’s the Catholic faith.”
Father Paul says that’s why Louis and Zéli Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, were canonized together. “Even if they’re not married in heaven, this communion, this proximity, this bond of love goes on after death.”
Don’t take that for granted. A group of Protestants who came to the Shrine told Father Paul that they found mourning difficult because after the funeral, their faith teaches them there is nothing more they can do for them. They are either in heaven or hell and, in either case, they cannot speak to them.
Says Father: “It’s more human, I think, to know that we can do something for them; that the relationship is not ended. They are still close to us [through] prayer and the Eucharist. The link between [us and the Holy Souls} is this love of God, this Communion.”
In fact, our Church says the Holy Souls are never closer to us than we participate in the Mass.
“During the Mass the proximity [with our loved ones] is very strong,” Father said. “All of heaven and all of purgatory are close to us. [Those in Purgatory] are suffering, but they are in grace too. They need purification to see God, but they live in love; there’s not just suffering, but joy too. They know they are saved.”
Those of us who are left behind may be sad, but for a Catholic there is this hope, this joy, that we will see our loved ones again – and we have a beautiful and important job to do, which is to pray for our beloved deceased.
“We put them in the hands of the Lord,” says Father Paul. “That’s a great consolation. We put them in the hands of our Mother. We all need a mother; that’s a gift that Jesus gave us. She protects us.”
Father reminds us: “God is not the God of the dead. He is the God of the Living because all of the Holy Souls in Purgatory live in and for Him.”
NEVER TOO LATE
All of this helps explain why it’s never too late to beg pardon or to say thanks to loved ones, as Father Paul reminds us was made clear in Pope Benedict’s encyclical Spes Salvi (“In hope, we are saved”).
That’s why the Shrine offers visitors – to the Shrine itself or to the Shrine website – an opportunity to fill out thank you and/or forgive me cards, which are placed at the feet of the famous statue of Our Lady of Montligeon, Libertrix (of Deliverance).
Father Paul says he himself writes up one or more of these cards every year on the anniversary of his own father’s death – and at other times as well. People say things like: “You weren’t kind in this or that moment. I forgive you” and/or “I remember this beautiful moment. Thank you!”
Remembering good and bad moments is common to everyone, but it’s especially important to those who were unable to be with their loved ones when they died or who were estranged from a loved one. But, as Father says, it’s never too late!
Mourning/Grieving Sessions at the Shrine
The Shrine holds seven mourning sessions each year which are facilitated by the priests and sisters stationed at the Shrine.
Often, the visit starts with a 1 hour listening session with a priest, which gives mourners the opportunity to unload their emotions.
“We just listen,” Father said. “This place is dedicated to holy Mary, adoration, and the rosary. Everyone can find some kind of answers to their questions [about] the way they feel. When you love someone [who has died], it’s like someone cut off a part of your body.”
The Shrine offers mourners a place to talk to the priests and nuns, but also to others who have experienced a similar loss. Mourners at the Shrine often walk “The Way of Resurrection,” which helps them “open to hope.” (Download the leaflet, https://bit.ly/WayOfResurrection.
Says Father: “They talk together. They pray together. At the end of some stations, there are smiles. They come with very dark, sad faces, and three days later, we can hear them laughing, take coffee, and speaking about their husbands.”
Stories of the Shrine’s Pilgrim Mourners
Father Paul shared examples of the kinds of pilgrims who come to the Shrine for healing.
One woman, who was mourning the loss of her 14-year-old daughter, came to the Shrine to rail against the priests; in this particular case, Father Paul. One of the brothers at the Shrine had once counseled him to let pilgrims like this woman go on their way. But an older priest advised him differently, saying that the anger of some pilgrims is not directed against the priest himself. “You are just an instrument of God. You have to be the punching bag.”
Says Father Paul: “It’s not against me she needs to express her anger, it’s against the Lord, against death.” Father Paul says that angry woman just needed someone to whom she could express her anger and her heartbreak. She is now a friend.
Another couple who lost two daughters during a terrorist attack in Paris have been coming to the Shrine for six years. Although they never really practiced their faith, that is changing.
“There is anger; they are still suffering, but there is hope. [At the Shrine], they can speak with other parents who lost their children.”
And then there are the atheists. One widow who attended Mass at the Shrine every day she was there, nevertheless told everyone who would listen that she didn’t believe in God. At the end of the week, Father Paul asked the woman why she came to Montligeon. She said, “You Christians are the only ones who speak about death and hope – and your God died. You celebrate the death of your God in the Eucharist.”
Says Father: “It’s an incredible thing that God should die [and rise from the dead]; it’s a revolution!” It’s the splendor of the Catholic faith and something many cradle Catholics take for granted!
And then, there is the story of a man who was working at his Paris office when his wife, who had gotten a jumpstart on a vacation with their children, called to tell him that their son had died in a swimming pool accident.
“All the hours he traveled from his work to try to join [his family] were terrible,” Father said. “He was alone on the train during the holidays. Everybody was happy and he was crying. He told me three things helped him.
“First, a priest told him, ‘You have a wife and other children. You have to live and to pray. It was a strong thing to say, but it helped. Second, he was walking a thin blade between hope and despair and he told me, ‘I chose hope.’ Third, [a line from the Bible:] ‘Jesus wept.’ That was a consolation.”
Father Paul’s own father died just before he became rector at the Shrine. Before that time, he wanted to be a parish priest so he wasn’t particularly happy about the assignment. But after losing his own father, on the Feast of Our Lady of Montligeon, he realized the importance of his vocation and his work at the Shrine, which is obviously where he was meant to be. This wonderful priest now radiates peace and joy in his assignment.
Why We Sometimes Mourn A Death Years After It Occurred
In modern times, people expect those who have experienced a death to move on relatively quickly. Martine, Father’s assistant, said that even though she hardly knew her diocesan bishop, she grew fond of him because of his devotion to the Blessed Mother. When she learned he had been reassigned, she shocked herself by breaking down in tears. She couldn’t understand why she was so upset.
But Martine had lost her father at age 17 and a brother a few years ago, and more recently had mourned when her 25-year-old sister-in-law lost her nine-month-old child. Someone at the Shrine helped Martine realize that she hadn’t fully grieved these losses.
“I couldn’t allow myself to show my grief,” she said. “it’s crazy it took all this time. New bereavements reveal older bereavements.”
Father Paul agreed. He recalled comforting a mourner whose husband had died, but it was her father who she ended up speaking about extensively during her husband’s funeral. “All our bereavements revive our previous griefs.”
Mourners come to the Shrine – either virtually or in person – to get a better understanding of their emotions and to heal. They come from every walk of life and with every type of pain, including murder and suicide. How is it possible for the religious and all who work at the Shrine to handle this?
Says Father, “To hear all the evil, the sadness, we can’t do that without prayer. If I don’t pray one or two days, I feel it. Meditation and silence. Without them, I’m like a boat in the storm.”
And that’s the message they pass on to mourners.
“Sometimes people don’t die as we expected. Death can be a struggle. But the Lord is always there – that’s our consolation. Beyond the struggle, beyond the crying, if there is hope, faith, and the matter of God, we can pray for them peacefully.”
Quick Links for Mourners To Access Shrine Services Plus a Video Interview
You don’t have to go to France to take advantage of the Shrine of Our Lady of Montligeon’s many services for the bereaved – although going there is a beautiful thing! Below are links for those who want to make a pilgrimage and five other things you can do in your own hometown.
- Make a pilgrimage to the Shrine as an individual or with a group. The Shrine website, montligeon.org/en, has information about accommodations as well as group activities, https://montligeon.org/en/venir-en-groupe/, and a whole lot more. To find out more, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can’t make a trip to France? No problem! Father Paul Denizot, Shrine Rector, says the most important work of the Shrine is prayer. Go to the link below to have a Mass offered, present a prayer petition, or to enroll yourself or a loved one in the Spiritual Fraternity of Our Lady of Montligeon: https://montligeon.org/en/entrust-your-beloved-ones-to-the-prayer-of-the-shrine/. The Spiritual Fraternity offers both the living and the deceased a perpetual enrollment in the five daily Masses offered at the Shrine by five priests, over 30,000 praying associates, and throughout the world by means of 800 Montligeon prayer groups in 45 countries. Click here to join the Fraternity: https://montligeon.org/en/fraternity-enrolment/
- Send a thank you/sorry card, https://montligeon.org/en/a-thank-you-sorry-card-to-a-deceased-person/. Simply download the card you will find at this link and forward it to the Shrine, either digitally or by mail, where it will be placed in a box under the Statue of Our Lady of Montligeon.
- With the permission of your pastor, start a “Montligeon Prayer Group.” Groups meet at least once a month in a public place such as a church, hospital, nursing home, hospice, school, seminary, Catholic radio station, etc. Groups pray a rosary for the deceased, participate in a Mass, and, very importantly, offer charitable acts on behalf of the deceased, which help mourners heal. What kinds of charitable acts might a group do? “People have to be inventive,” says Father Paul. “They can support orphans, clean the cemetery, sing at funerals, become a lay server at parish funerals, visit bereaved families, pray a rosary close to the body of the deceased, offer roses to the bereaved – you can’t limit charity.” To find out more about prayer groups, the training offered, and to register, email Nathalie Blondeau at email@example.com.
- Looking for more? The Shrine’s entire website is a treasure trove of information. Here is a link to some other useful downloads, which include The Way of Resurrection, https://bit.ly/WayOfResurrection, helpful for the bereaved, and The Way of Consolation, written for parents who have lost a child before birth: https://montligeon.org/en/free-downloads/
- And don’t forget: You can watch the “EWTN Live” interview that Father Mitch Pacwa conducted with Father Paul and translator/assistant Martine Courvoisier here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXVYll-coDk&t=3s)