Taken from Athanasius Contra Mundum
Each All Souls Day are immersed in the Church’s theology of salvation and purgatory. At first they are presented with a mock coffin, as is present in the Church for Requiem Masses. The priest, deacon and subdeacon wear black, which reminds us of death, of ash, of the transitory nature of this world. Leonard Goffine, in his Explanation of the Epistles and Gospels, defines it this way:
It is the day set apart by the Catholic Church for the special devout commemoration of all those souls who have departed this life in the grace and friendship of God, for whom we pray , that they may soon be released by God from the prison of purgatory. (pg. 911)
It is a special day in which we remember the Church Suffering, the second and least remembered branch of the Church. The Church Triumphant is especially remembered on the day before, and throughout the year. The Church militant, is constantly remembered in prayers of the Mass, and is applied for their intentions. The Church suffering however is often left out, with only the small prayers for the intentions of the deceased mentioned in the Canon of every Mass. We are exhorted to an act of charity, to pray for the souls of those who await the expiation of their temporal punishment for sin.
...Tenth century Europeans celebrating All Souls Day would be at a loss to discover that it is really from a tradition of a pagan people in a land they did not even know existed. Yet given that in the face of a worldwide homosexual priest molestation scandal, dropping vocations and a disgusting liturgy we are in a new springtime perhaps that is not so odd. This is a myth which should be dispelled with all possible force. It may be that All Souls Day has origins in the 2nd century Church, however its first record was from an abbot of Cluny who instituted the commemoration in all monasteries attached to the Cluniac reform in the late 900’s, and that this day was confirmed by Pope John XIX, another Pope who never heard of Mexico, or America or the day of the dead, because it would not be discovered for several hundred years after his death. The fact that the Mexican Day of the dead comes so close to All Souls Day is a mere coincidence.
What happens when we die?
The Traditional Mass for the commemoration of All Souls is meant to reinforce a teaching of the Church concerning sin and punishment.
When one sins there are necessarily two things created: A temporal punishment, and an eternal punishment. When we receive the sacrament of penance, the eternal punishment (that is hell) is cleaned off the table. However, there is still a temporal punishment. It is like when a child throws a baseball and breaks the neighbor’s window. The neighbor may forgive the child and hold no grudge (as he should) but the child must still pay for the window. Penance, be it while we are alive or when we pass from this world (purgatory) is our manner of paying for God’s windows which we break by our sins. A better analogy is that we must clean the filth off the windows that we put there by our sins. Temporal punishments come in all forms, pain for the soul, disease, poverty, tragedy, or suffering in purgatory, all of which must have satisfaction made by penances, such as almsgiving, devout prayer, fasting and sacrifices.
Along the path of purgation, of expiating our temporal punishment for sin, we get help along the way. The Church grants us “indulgences” (from the Latin indulgentia) which if the conditions are met they make satisfaction for some of our punishment. An indulgence is thus defined as a total or partial remission of the temporal punishment which man would have to suffer either in this or the next life, after the sins have been remitted. Thus if we wanted to use a crude understanding, the Church essentially grants time off of purgatory for a given act. This is most certainly in the Church’s power, as Our Blessed Lord said both to Peter singly, and later to all the Apostles “Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” (Matthew XVIII:18) Purgatory is not in heaven, it exists in time but not in space. Its sufferings are temporal, and thus the Church has the power to remit some sufferings.
There are two types of indulgences, a plenary and a partial indulgences. As their Latin roots suggest, the former is a full indulgence, or remittance for your temporal punishment, while the latter is only for part of it. The partial indulgence only remits so many days or years of penance, as in the ancient codes of the Church so many days of public penance would be remitted by certain indulgences. Hence to say a certain indulgence is an 80 days indulgence, etc. However indulgences are not get out of jail free cards. You can only get one if you are in a state of grace, and perform necessary virtuous work with a love of God. Indulgences said with no devotion, or performed for mere gain do not fulfill the conditions and therefore remit no amount of temporal punishment. Furthermore indulgences do not forgive sin, only the temporal punishment resulting from sin. Only Christ, in the person of his priests willing to do what the Church does, who forgives sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost can possibly grant forgiveness of sins.
The use of indulgences is a great tool by which we can attain heaven faster. Dom Gueranger notes in his Liturgical Year:
We well know how the Church seconds the goodwill of her children. By the practice of Indulgences, she places at their charitable disposal the inexhaustible treasure accumulated, from age to age, by the super-abundant satisfactions of the saints, added to those of the martyrs, and united to those of our blessed Lady and the infinite residue of our Lord’s sufferings. These remissions of punishment she grants to the living by her own direct power; but she nearly always approves of and permits their application to the dead by way of suffrage- that is to say, in the manner in which, as we have seen, each of the faithful may offer to God who accepts it, for another, the suffrage or succour of his own satisfactions. Such is the doctrine of Suarez, who adds that an Indulgence ceded to the dead loses nothing either of the security or of the value it would have had for ourselves who are militant. (Liturgical Year, vol. 15, pg. 94)
There is no question, that both in this Mass of All Souls day, and in our personal prayers, we must take up the cause of our brethren in purgatory. In the past there were orders devoted to such prayer, and today, well, today purgatory remains an inconvenient obstacle to ecumenical dialogue, which only seeks to obscure the faith and create some unity in diversity at the expense of holy souls. St. Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians: “We will not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, even as others who have no hope.”(I Thessalonians IV:13). ...If it is charity to pray and make sacrifices and offer indulgences for the souls in purgatory, it is the exact opposite to discourage devotion to the souls of purgatory, in fact it is evil. ... Thus all ... Catholics worth their salt should be taking up the adoption of a soul or souls in purgatory, and pray and make sacrifices for their deliverance.