By Anthony Aneke
To pray for the dead may not make sense to some Christians, but for us Catholics, it is strongly part and parcel of our faith tradition and this tradition is rooted in the Scriptures and the Catechism of the Church.
But then, from a sociological perspective, do you think our relationship with our loved ones ends in their death? I do not think so. Human life and existence is a network of relationships of all kinds. These relationships are not a product of chance. Relationship is a gift from God because God is a communion of persons. The world is possible because of relationships. Our Christianity does make sense because of relationships. And you know what? Good Relationships never ends. However, we don’t always have the time, luxury and wisdom to love people as we should, as they deserve to be loved. Sometimes we don’t even recognize the immensity of the debt we owe others until long they have gone. If relationships ended with death, then this would be an immense tragedy: an utterly lost opportunity, a perpetually raw wound in the words of Scott Hahn.
It is good to point out that death is not the end of Human life. Not for anyone. Every person who has ever lived is still alive in one state or another – a state of grace or a disgrace. St. John Henry’s Newman’s sermon on the individuality of the soul reminds us:
All those millions upon millions of human beings, who ever trod the earth and saw the sun successively, are at this very moment in existence all together. This, I think, you will grant we do not duly realize. All those Canaanites, whom the Children on Israel slew, every one of them is somewhere in the universe, now at this moment, where God has assigned him a place.
Scripture and Praying for the dead – Purgatory
Scripture teaches that all of the dead shall be raised. But then, only the just are destined for the kingdom of God. And so, our faith teaches us to pray for the dead. Even though people hope that those who die are with God and the angels and saints, it is not necessarily a guarantee.
The doctrine of purgatory actually dates back to the Old Testament. The second book of Maccabees (12:39-46) tells of when Judas Maccabeus found pagan amulets on the bodies of dead Jewish soldiers – a sign that they had sinned by practicing idolatry. Judas “then took up a collection among all his soldiers…which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” The passage concludes: “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead.”
In his book Signs of Life, Scott Hahn maintains that in Judaism, similar practices were common at the time of Jesus’ early ministry. They endure today in the prayers known as the “mourner’s kaddish,” offered after a family member’s death, and el male Rachamin which specifically concerns the soul of the deceased. The New Testament continues to speak of purgatory, though only implicitly. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Mt.12:32). Thus, he implies that there is some way of forgiveness in the age to come. St. Paul taught that Christians who are less than completely faithful will be save, but only as it were through fire. (1 Cor. 3:15). That metaphorical ‘fire” is the purification of purgatory.
The book of Revelation (21:27) says, “nothing unclean will enter” heaven. Purgatory is simply the stage after death when the soul is purified of all uncleanness – the effects of a lifetime’s sins. It seems that most, if not all of those who get to heaven must pass through this stage. As St. Paul said, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. (Rom. 3:23).
If we confess our sins, God forgives us, yet we still need to be healed of the damage we have done to ourselves. This healing, like earthly healing, may involve suffering. Medicine sometimes tastesbad and even makes us feel queasy. Physical therapy can leave us sore. But the doctor does not prescribe those remedies because of their unwanted side effects; he prescribes them because they heal. Sometimes healing hurts.
Scott Hahn points out that the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor applied this principle to the doctrine of purgatory: “Water is a symbol of purification and fire is another. Water, it seems to me is a symbol of the kind of purification that God gives irrespective of our efforts or worthiness, and fire is the kind of purification we bring on ourselves – as in Purgatory. It is our evil which is naturally burnt away when it comes anywhere near God”.
The early Church: Praying for the dead
The catacombs and other ancient Christian burial places bear witness to early concern for the souls of the dead. Christian families often carved onto gravestones pleas for passersby to remember the departed. In the late second century, the North Africa Christian Tertullian spoke of purgatory, as did his countryman St. Cyprian in the third century. At the same time, we find the doctrine in the writings of Origen of Egypt. St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica urged him to offer mass for her after she died. And St.John Chrysostom urged his congregations to have the liturgy offered for purified by their father’s sacrifice (see Jb. 1:5), why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolations? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers to them”.
This is the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ, and it has always been so. From the Old Testament through the New, from the apostolic Fathers through the medieval scholastics, no one dare to question the continuity of relations among Christians. Those who remained on earth had a way of relating to those who had gone on in death. Only with the protestant reformation was this taken away.
The efficacy of our prayers and sacrifices for the dead
The Catholic faith teaches that we can indeed continue to care, help and express generosity toward people even after they have died through prayer. The Church encourages us to hope and pray for all those we have lost. She asks us not to presume that anyone has gone straight to heaven or hell, but rather to petition God with loving confidence on their behalf.
Our prayers and sacrifices for loves one who have gone before us have real efficacy. They can bring comfort and consolation to those suffering from the purification that comes in purgatory and they can bring about their final release from that purification, helping them experience at long the loving gaze of the Father. The Catechism tells us:
This teaching is…based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned is sacred Scripture:“Therefore (Judas Maccabeus) made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sins.” From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and words of penance undertaken on behalf of the death. (CCC 1031)
These prayers also bring comfort to us, who are left behind. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul reminded the Christian Community that they were not to “grieve as others do who have no hope”.(4:13)
He didn’t tell them not to grieve. Grief is a normal, natural human emotion. We want to be with the people we love, so of course we grieve them when they leave us. But when we grieve, we grieve with hope. We grieve hoping that they clung to Christ to the last or chose him at the last. We grieve, hoping that our prayers for the faithful departed and assist them on their journey home to the Father’s house. And we grieve, hoping that someday we will all be together again, sharing in the joy and peace and life that is promised to all in heaven.
We can never over emphasize how important our prayers for the faithful departed are – for them and us. When grief takes hold of our hearts, when we long to be reunited with the ones we have lost, we have the comfort of knowing we can take direct action now to assist all those we have loved who are enduring their final purification in purgatory.Whether they died in visible communion with the Church or not, whether they were buried according to the mind of the Church or not, we can still help them. We can offer up penances great and small for them, say Rosaries for them, and obtain indulgences for them. We also can visit cemeteries and pray for them. And we can offer the traditional prayers of the Church for the dead at every meal, whether before we eat or after: “And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace”.
The Power of the Holy Mass
No prayer is more powerful than the mass, and there is no greater way to show our love for our dead than to have Masses said for them. This is the ancient teaching of the Church, and the ancient practice of the faithful. Writing in the sixth century, Pope St. Gregory the great noted that:
The holy sacrifice of Christ, our saving victim, brings great benefits to souls even after death, provided their sins can be pardoned in the life to come. For this reason the souls of the dead sometimes beg to have masses offered to them.
St. Gregory initiated the practice of saying thirty masses for the dead after an experience with a deceased estranged monk. This practice of having thirty masses offered for the dead continues to this day in numerous religious orders, and is referred to as “Gregorian Masses.” Other Masses for the dead are offered in every parish in the world
Resurrecting this tradition in our families and communities is easily the most important and powerful thing we can do to help those we have lost. We cannot forget that how we honour and love our dead doesn’t end with their burial. It goes on. Every day of our life, until God willing, we see them again.
In this month of November, beginning from All Souls Day (The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed), it is especially important to recall the Church’s teaching that there is indeed a Purgatory in which the souls of the saved but imperfect are awaiting the fulfillment of their purification and healing, and that these souls can be greatly helped by the prayers, sacrifices and Masses offered by the living. This is an aspect of the Catholic patrimony that must not be forgotten or de-emphasized. Justice demands that our brothers and sisters in the faith who have died find in us faithful friends who acknowledge that it is indeed a good and pious thing to pray for the dead.