I recently watched Disney’s Coco that was released in the Fall of 2017. It was an imaginative journey of the usual Pixar animation studio. The colors are very illuminating and pulsing everywhere in the Land of the Dead (a place in the film). Also, I was glad to see the film focus on very important themes of holding on to tradition and why the family is an essential building block for society.
The film is about how two generations ago, a family had a great-great-grandfather who left in order to pursue music. As a result, music has become a taboo topic and practice. Some generations later, a young boy named Miguel has an unceasing desire for playing music, but his family disapproves. He later discovers the hated grandfather was a famous Mexican musician, Ernesto de la Cruz, which prompts him to visit his grave that teleports Miguel to the Land of the Dead (those that are dead). Miguel teams up with Hector to discover the truth about his famous ancestor that throws them both in a hurdle of unexpected run-ins, encounters, and twists.
The film revolves largely around the Mexican holiday of El Dia de Los Muertos, The Day of the Day. This holiday revolves around the living offering gifts, remembrance, and prayers to those who are dead. The film displays the great detail the living undergoes to prepare for this important holiday. For example, they create decorated altars called oferendas where they place images, candles and former possessions. In addition, the living visit gravesites with food and prayer.
This holiday is interesting because most non-Western cultures have some sort of spiritual connection with the dead similar to Day of the Dead. They all don’t look the same too. A lot of cultures find ways to honor the dead by providing monetary offerings, prayers, and singing songs to departed loved ones. To me, that’s very important about the interconnectedness of the living and the dead.
This got me thinking about what we believe in as Catholics as the Communion of Saints. I thought it would be fitting to touch on this topic because the movie revolved around remembering ancestors so much.
Although there are a lot of things to consider regarding this doctrine (Read Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 946-962), a fundamental component is the Mystical Body of Jesus consists of three parts all united by Jesus-those on earth, saints in Heaven, and those in Purgatory. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers (962).”
Moreover, the veneration and remembering of the saints and departed have two important days next to each other on the liturgical calendar, All Saints’ Day (November 1st) All Souls’ Day (November 2nd). The former is about venerating and honoring those beatified, canonized or non-canonized in a special manner. The latter is centered on the living providing intercessory prayers for those that are deceased in purgatory awaiting their entry into heaven.
All Saints’ is a holy day of obligation which means the faithful must gather to celebrate Mass. It’s a day on not a day off! On this day, the readings all center on holiness-our goal in this life. Since God has bestowed love upon us to be His children (1 Jn. 3:1), we’re called to imitate God’s holiness (1 Pet. 1:15). Jesus commanded us to be perfect (Matt. 5:48) so the center of the reading on the call to holiness and how we can attain virtues summed up in the Beatitudes from Jesus Christ. The homily is an exhortation to challenge us, believers, to truly model charity, mercy, and the various virtues (more on virtues read the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1803-1845) that accompany our life in Christ.
On the other hand, All Souls’ Day is a holy day, but not an obligatory one. Primarily, this day focuses on the living offering prayers to those in purgatory waiting to be cleansed from venial sin that prohibits them from entering heaven. Purgatory isn’t hell despite its depiction in popular art. It’s actually a very merciful state. The souls there will see heaven, but first, have to undergo purification of any stains prior to entering a sinless perfect fellowship with God. One of the best images of purgatory I like is Isaiah 6:4-8 that shows no can see God’s glory without first being purified. Isaiah stands before God and recognizes his own sinfulness in comparison to God’s holiness. As a result, Isaiah is purified with coals from the Seraphim to stand without sin. Again, nothing unclean can coexist with God, so being cleansed if a prerequisite before entering the Kingdom.
For me, I think these two holy days are a full display of the beauty of the Church, the perfect expression of God having One Body. All three parts of the Church working together as one family of God. It’s also a great display of love. How loving is it to offer prayer. Prayer is a great act of love that shows you’re invested in another’s spiritual well-being. What an amazing opportunity to express this by taking time out to pray for the departed soul. Moreover, we ask the saints to intercede for us just as we would a normal friend with a prayer request. Some have confirmation saints that they chose for Confirmation as a source of strength and a model of how to live for Jesus. Many have an amazing devotion to the Blessed Mother since she is inseparable from her son and his mission. Asking for intercession from saints isn’t about them getting the glory but God (That’s a small misconception many have). The saints throughout the centuries have left amazing poetic prayers to ultimately focus and lead us closer to God.
I think non-Catholics would agree with those in heaven having a special role. They may some something like “I know ____ is watching/protecting me” or keep an image as a reminder of their life. Catholics similarly do something like this with statues and asking for prayers from those in heaven.
One thing to be cautious about on topics of the dead/saints is to not give into superstition or occult-like practices such as divination, magic, and idolatry. To clarify, we don’t communicate with the dead to receive hidden secrets or predict future events (that would be necromancy), conjuring up the dead, perform seances. All of these things would go against the First Commandment.
Coco is a pretty decent film. It touches on an amazing component of the Church. I was glad to see Disney Pixar touch on this, albeit imperfectly, but from secular entertainment, I’ll take vague allusions of Christianity over none.
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Source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures