The Wisdom of Praying for the Dead

Commemoration of All Souls – 2014

Today’s Sunday Mass is celebrated for the Commemoration of All Souls. It is the culmination of what has been referred to as the second triduum in the liturgical calendar, the Triduum of All Saints, which includes the Vigil of All Saints, once referred to as All Hallows Eve – later shortened to All Hallowe’en – the Solemnity of All Saints itself and the Commemoration of All Souls. This year the Commemoration of All Souls has fallen on a Sunday, and the church testifies to the importance of this commemoration by celebrating All Souls rather than the normal 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Because we live in a country that was founded by Protestant Christians and whose culture has been heavily influenced by Protestantism, Halloween, as it is referred to in this country has largely been totally secularized, while the Commemoration of All Souls is largely ignored by the churches and the culture at large. To be sure, it makes no sense to dedicate a day of prayer for the departed souls if one does not believe in the existence of Purgatory, and very few Protestants do. So the Commemoration of All Souls is largely a Catholic liturgical practice and event. Thus, atheists obviously have no use for this religious practice, and the vast majority of practicing Protestants will merely remember their dead, but will quite understandably not pray for them.

However, praying for the dead has always been an important part of Catholic spirituality, and this can already be seen in early Church inscriptions on grave markers. This ancient Christian practice has something in common with the general religious sensibilities of most peoples, who not only remembered their dead but also in some way try to assist them in reaching their life beyond this world, however they may understand that life in the beyond. This religious custom also was present among the Israelites, as we can see in a passage from the 2nd Book of Maccabees, which passage can be chosen as one of today’s readings, in which we are told that Judas Maccabeus, having discovered amulets on his dead soldiers after a battle,  “then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand  silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice … Thus he made atonement for the dead.”

At any rate, Catholics have always had a strong sense of solidarity not only with the dead who are now saints in heaven, but also with the dead who are still in need of purification before they enter the glory of heaven. This religious solidarity and practice of praying for the dead also reveals the elevated notion among Christians of the purity necessary for unity with God. Jesus told us that we must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, and it is impossible to see how the soul that is not perfect in virtue and purity of heart would be able to enter into the most intimate embrace of Almighty God. And yet how many people leave this world in such a state of perfection? The church believes that there is an intermediary condition between the total imperfection that merits hell, and the total perfection that merits heaven. Likewise the church believes in both the justice and mercy of God. To assume that sinners who are sorry for their sins, but who escape the justice of this world for their sins, would simply be purified by God’s merciful forgiveness without any suffering of a just punishment is an invitation not only to doubt the reality of divine justice after death, but likewise to totally reject any reason for justice in this world as well. How can it be that those who undergo tremendous suffering, including the suffering caused by the injustice of this world, would be less fortunate than those who escape the justice of this world and escape any earthly suffering for their sins?

The church not only believes that souls who do not undergo perfect purification for their sins in this world will undergo such purification in Purgatory. However, the Church also believes that, because of the communication of goods among the communion of saints, we on earth can be of help through our prayers and sacrifices to those who have gone before us and are not yet in the state of perfection necessary to enter in to the divine embrace and blessedness of perfect union. This belief was so strong prior to the so-called Reformation that the secular and new religious leaders had to literally rip it out of the souls and hearts of the common believers. In England, for instance, parishioners around the country at first resisted all the efforts of the radical reformers to destroy the ancient liturgical and devotional customs that centered on praying for the dead. It took considerable time and intensive pressure to destroy this piety of the people and sense of duty toward their deceased relatives and friends.

Purgatory, then, is an infallible teaching of the Catholic Church, and praying for the dead is still taught by the Church to be a religious practice in keeping with that doctrine. Unfortunately, the secularized religious culture in which we live has profoundly undercut this belief and devotion even among many Catholics. There are perhaps many reasons for this.

For instance, homilies at Catholic funerals are often virtual canonizations declaring that the dead person is already in heaven, and therefore it logically would follow that we should be praying to that deceased person rather than for that person. In this universalism, there’s a certain trivialization of the perfection necessary for our union with God, as stated above.

Then there is the general loss of the sense of sin. Why pray for someone if sin is equated with bad manners, as nothing really serious to worry about. If God doesn’t care about sin in this world, why would God care about it in the next? So again, why pray for the dead? Indeed, there is an increasing tendency in our society to believe that everyone ends up in heaven anyway, except for the rare monsters like Hitler. But if virtually everyone ends up in heaven, then the whole notion of justice in relation to our sins has to be quietly done away with in favor of a kind of sweeping mercy that ignores personal responsibility. How does this square with fact that the Bible seems to suggest that while Christ indeed died for all our sins, to sin after receiving his great mercy is seen as a greater insult to God and more damning than had the person never known Christ.

On the other hand, does it seem too far a stretch to suggest that Catholic Christians and Orthodox Christians who pray for their dead throughout their lifetimes will probably remain more conscious of, and thus closer to their deceased loved ones than others who assume they are immediately in Heaven after their death. Moreover, beyond love, there’s great faith and hope involved in this praying for the dead, because we certainly wouldn’t do so unless we believe that our deceased love ones are either in heaven or on their way to heaven. And if they already in heaven, surely we can trust that they will return the favor of our prayers and help us, or others they love, to benefit from them.

And if they are not already in heaven, surely we can trust that they will be extremely grateful to us when they at last come into their inheritance with our help. And, as with God, we will never outdo those we pray for in generosity, and they surely will be great advocates for us in the heavenly kingdom.

So it’s a double win. If they are already in heaven, our prayers redound to us or others and make us or them holier and thus more likely to join them one day. If they are not in heaven, we will surely win their “undying” gratitude, and the joy of heaven will be all the greater because of the way we have helped one another, not only in this world, but even beyond. The Communion of Saints definitely includes the souls in Purgatory

Finally, praying for the dead is a surefire way to keep our focus on eternity, on the world beyond that never ends, the true goal of our existence. It keeps death before our minds in a spiritually healthy way, and in doing so keeps us mentally focused on what really matters in this life. May we who pray for the dead today be blessed with devout friends and relatives who will perform this service for us when we pass from this world. Our best hope is to teach our children to pray for our deceased relatives and friends on a regular basis, such as at the blessing for meals. It’s something we are most wise to teach our children, for they will be our greatest benefactors when they one day help us to make that last stage of the journey home.

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Categories: Homilies

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