Dear Religious Family,
In the United States, there is one holiday in the month of October which truly pervades the culture . . . Halloween. Beginning in September (or even August), stores begin to fill up with spooky decorations, jack-o-lanterns, black cats and witches’ hats, and candy galore! For most Americans, Halloween and the activities that surround it, such as haunted houses, Halloween parties, trick-or-treating, etc. are just a fun way to get together with friends, dress up in silly costumes, and for kids to run around the neighborhood begging for candy! Harmless fun, right?
Back in 1997, when Fr. Brian Nolan, now a priest for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was in seminary, he was assigned to help with a youth group at a nearby parish. During the month of October, the youth group had an outing to the local Haunted Hayride. Fr. Brian (then a seminarian) accompanied the last group. At the beginning, they were “welcomed” by a scary actor dressed like a witch who said in a creepy voice, “Welcome to the Haunted hayride, please sign your soul to the devil.” He then gave them a pen and paper to do just that. Fr. Brian responded very strongly that none of his youth were going to do that. “You don’t do that even in gest!” he said. This experience, along with a couple of other events got him thinking of a way to offer a more spiritual, more Catholic, cemetery walk during the month of October, one in which visitors could encounter the saints.
The inspiration came to fruition in 2002 when, as a newly ordained priest, he was assigned to be the chaplain for McDaniel College. Many of his students had misconceptions about death and the afterlife. “Through prayer, reflection and research, the idea of a “Cemetery Walk”, teaching the faith in a creative way, took form.” Thus, Back from the Dead was born. In this Cemetery Walk, visitors meet the saints who give them a glimpse into the reality of death, heaven, hell and purgatory.
For over a decade now Back from the Dead has been hosted at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg, MD, USA. Groups of 10-25 people go through the walk at a time. Before they enter the cemetery of the Sisters of Charity, they are greeted by the Gravedigger who exhorts them to listen carefully to what the dead will say to them. “Remember your death!” He says, “Live your life for your death…” Then the visitors continue into the cemetery meeting various saints along the way, including St. Faustina, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, Servant of God Fr. Cappadano, St. Maria Goretti with Alessandro Serenelli, her murderer, Servant of God Thea Bowman, Carlo Acutis and, of course Mother Seton. At carefully chosen points in the walk, the visitors are also faced with a soul in purgatory, who describes how he was “not ready for God” when he died in a car accident, a devil dressed in all black, whose monologue sheds light on the subtle whisperings of evil spirits – doubts, false ideologies and “cancel culture” were all touched on; at the very end, visitors meet a “person in heaven”, who represents the multitude of saints whose names are known well to God, if not to us. At the end of the walk the visitors are led into the Basilica where one or more priests are hearing confession. The priests who hear confessions on these nights are usually in the confessional for 3-4 hours, and though some have never even been on the walk, they sing its praises based on the good confessions they hear.
For the last two years, I had gone on the Walk as a visitor, and experienced for myself the powerful way that the Holy Spirit is working in this event. This year I had the grace to participate in it as an actor, and I wanted to share with you my behind-the-scenes look. In September, I met with the director, Becca Corbell, and she offered me the part of either Mother Seton or “Person in Heaven”. To me, the role of “person in heaven” seemed most appropriate for me as consecrated woman to play. After all, we are called to teach “all people to look forward in joy and hope to the good things of heaven.” I met with her a few times one on one to practice the monologue and I began to see the beauty of the simplicity of the script. A week before the first performance, we had a dress rehearsal in which I got to meet the other actors and see the whole walk. There were nearly 30 actors, plus those who helped behind the scenes, the guides, etc. It was a big production, and the actors ranged from teens to young adults and seminarians to even a couple of moms. I saw quickly that my presence among the actors was an apostolate within an apostolate as the habit seemed to spark conversations about vocations, the state of the church, the reality of heaven and purgatory, and more.
Although the Walk runs a total of 10 nights over 3 weekends, Becca organizes it so that each actor only has to commit to one or two nights a weekend. Each night 11 groups of 10-30 people experiences the walk. In the end over 2500 people came this year. Each evening that I acted, I would go to the Basilica around 5:00 pm to pray Evening Prayer at the tomb of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and to ask for her intercession. On a couple of occasions, one of the actors joined me for Evening prayer. Then I would have dinner with the cast and crew, where many good conversations were sparked. Around 6:15 pm Becca gathered the cast into “the White House” – that is, the house that served as convent and school for the Sisters of Charity during Mother Seton’s time. We met in their chapel for announcements, comments from the previous night’s run, and of course prayer. (I should explain, that at the end of every walk, visitors are invited to fill out a survey about their experience. Every night Becca shared some of these comments with us.) Many of the comments revealed that deep conversions were taking place as a result of their experience. In the Back from the Dead prayer, we ask through the intercession of the saints for the spiritual good of those who will come to the walk. Then we disperse to get ready, and light our lanterns.
One of the reasons, I wanted to participate in this apostolate – besides the fact that I enjoy theatre and acting – was the sacrifice of the cold. I had to be in place by 6:30 pm and I did not leave until around 9:30 pm. The first group begins the walk around 6:30 pm and as I was the last “saint’ that they meet, it took about an hour to get to me. While waiting, I prayed the rosary and a divine mercy chaplet every night and tried to think about heaven and the joy that we will experience there. Some nights, this was very difficult because the cold made my muscles tense up so much that it was all I could do to breathe deeply and try to relax. On those nights especially I asked Our Blessed Mother to be my eyes, my ears, my voice, my hands and my feet. With every group I prayed for the grace to see each of them again in Heaven. When I spoke my lines, I tried to really look at them, to really speak to each of them. Sometimes they were smiling and nodding. Sometimes, they were stone-faced. Sometimes, youth groups came with giggling teens. Sometimes children came right up to me so close it made me laugh. Other times, adults stood as far away from me as possible. But at the end of my part, I walk away into the darkness, and they continue on their way to the Basilica.
My time there in the dark and in the cold, gave me ample time to reflect on the Prayer of Consecration for Religious: In my daily life do I really teach others to look forward to the good things of heaven? Do I truly cherish the Church as my mother? Do I really love every soul that God brings into my path? When I die, will I “hear the voice of the Bridegroom lovingly inviting [me] to the wedding feast of Heaven?” How often do I really remember my death? Am I living each day in light of my death?
I share these reflections with you, my dear family, because perhaps, like me, many of you also get caught up in the day-to-day busy-ness of your apostolate, your office, your work, etc, and forget the end – that is Heaven. Perhaps we have a tendency to focus in on the means and in doing so we lose sight of the end. Therefore, I exhort you (and myself) Remember your death!
May Our Blessed Mother help us, in all our actions, to point others to the joys of heaven. May she help us live each day in light of our death, so that when the Bridegroom comes, our lanterns will be lit!
In Jesus and Mary,
Sr. Maria Thalassa
Missionary in Emmitsburg, MD, USA
 Prayer for Consecration of Religious
 Prayer for Consecration of Religious