Every weekend in October, the seminarians of Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD and the people from surrounding parishes become saints. So, I decided to take the youth group up to the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton to meet them.
The Back for the Dead Cemetery Walk started in 2004, when Father Brian Nolan was chaplain at the college down the street from his parish in Westminster, Maryland. He was dismayed at the sadistic nature of the ever-popular haunted houses and the like. When he took a group of young people to a haunted hayride and was told to sign their souls over to the Devil (their way of having one sign a liability form), he flat-out said, "No!" Thus, a seed planted back in seminary of a desire to teach others about the glorious saints blossomed into a great idea.
Father Nolan decided to have a cemetery walk where people would encounter, not ghosts and goblins, but saints who would tell their stories and encourage others on the path to holiness. In the first, one-night-only, Back from the Dead Cemetery Walk, only six college students came through to meet the saints. Undaunted, Father continued to write more monologues for different saints, hoping to reach more people the following year.
Now, 17 years later, Father, with the help of a friend, has written over 25 monologues for saints that span time and countries. From North American martyr St. Isaac Jogues (Father's first saint) to Blessed Carlo Acutis, the first millennial saint, every year is a little bit different. But every year, there are saints waiting to talk to us.
Before entering, a grave digger greets us. He warns us that those we will meet this night have a message for us. He bids us not to waste the time of the dead but to listen. "Remember your death," he quotes the ancient monks' greeting as he urges us to prepare for our own death.
As we walk through the cemetery of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, saints appear with a message for those who will listen. On this night, we are first greeted by St. Faustina who asks us if we believe in Hell? She assures us that it is a real place and describes her vision and the torments of Hell. Yet, she ends her warning with hope: "There is nothing that God cannot forgive. There is no misery that could be a match for His mercy, nor could any sinner exhaust Him, because as His mercy is given, it increases."
Next, we met Blessed Jerzy Popielusko, the Polish priest who was beaten and martyred in 1984 for speaking Truth. He asks us, "What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?"
St. John Henry Newman, after sharing his conversion story with us, prays his poem "The Pillar of the Cloud." Standing in the blackness of the cemetery lit only by a lantern makes his words all the more real:
Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home -
Lead Thou me on!
St. Maria Goretti is joined by her repentant killer Alessandro Serenelli to tell us of the power of forgiveness.
The young Blessed Carlo Acutis encourages the young people, and all of us, to use our gifts for Jesus, starting today, for we do not know how much time we have. He gives my youth group something to think about: "All people are born originals," he tells us, "but many live as photocopies."
St. Josephine Bahkita, the Sudanese girl who was kidnapped and enslaved, assures us that God is not indifferent to our suffering, but enters into it with us and brings good out of it.
We also meet two souls in purgatory, a powerful encounter. They encouraged us to make time for God, to trust Him, and to live for Him. They leave us begging for prayers, asking that we not forget them.
One shady character eerily approaches our group. He calls us names like "stupid," "losers'" and "phony." He tries to convince us that we are not special to God. Furthermore, he predicts that within 20 minutes of leaving there, we would forget what we had learned. Scarier still, he promises that he will see us again.
A soul from heaven, whose name, like many of the souls in heaven, is unknown to us, ends our encounter with the dead. He tries to explain the beauty and blessedness of our true home, but words failed him. So he quotes Scriptures: "Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, nor has it entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor. 2:9).
Personally, I have made this walk for 10 years. Every year, God touches my soul with something one of the saints or souls, or even the devil, says. This year it was the one character who is constantly there, the grave digger. While different saints meet us every year, the grave digger is always there to greet the visitors to the cemetery.
His monologue doesn't really change much from year to year, but this year, his words, "Do not waste your time," really struck me. Perhaps because I am often feeling stressed for more time, his words make me wonder if I am more often than not wasting precious time and opportunities. Do I make time everyday for God, like the holy souls in purgatory urged? Do I forgive, as St. Maria Goretti shows me I ought? Can I see the good even in my sufferings, like St. Bahkita could? Do I seek the Truth, like St. John Henry Newman? When the opportunity arises, do I speak the truth, like Fr. Jerzey did? Do I waste time on my phone and computer, or do I use that time to glorify God, like Bl. Carlo?
I have a long way to go to become a saint. Yet, St. Faustina reminds me that God's mercy is powerful. Without Him, I can do nothing, but with God's good grace, I can become a saint. One day, today, November 1st, All Saints' Day, will be my feast day!