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Are Catholics mad to pray for the dead?

November 10, 2012

The world at large is horrified by the idea of a Mass for the Dead. It is upsetting, incongruous and bewildering. A service about death, to pray for the dead, followed by a slap up dinner. Are Catholics  mad?November is the month when Catholics particularly remember to pray for the dead.

This homily was prepared for a Mass for the Dead celebrated by members of the Catenian Association on 8th November 2012. It is based on the two readings (shown at the bottom of the homily below).

In this Year of Faith we need to stop and examine why we do things the way we do, because many outsiders find our activities to be rather odd, even disturbing. We live in a society that, despite claiming to be entirely progressive, rational, and scientific, is in complete denial about the death. It superstitiously avoids mentioning it. Fear of death is so great that our society hides it away. When the unavoidable eventually happens, many dying people are unprepared, and so often friends and family are left in a spiritual daze, grasping at anything that will answer their need to explain what is going on. The result for many is that death leaves behind a profound sense of shock and a desperate searching for meaning. Sentimentality, both personally and sometimes nationally, can become a substitute for rational faith.

This does not mean, of course, that we Christians are not dreadfully upset when someone we know and love dies. As we’ve heard, our Lord Himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. But it is at such moments of grief that we most need our Christian brothers and sisters to stand with us, to be ‘in communion’, together with the friends who share our faith. Not least because, at such deeply emotional times, some people can experience an alarming challenge to their faith. We are reassured and consoled in times of sadness by the visible faith being shown by our friends and relatives. And we need to practice doing just that when we’re not in emotional turmoil, so that when we are under severe emotional pressure, our faith remains strong.

So at a mass for the dead we practicing Catholics practice being faithful Catholics. As people of faith, we acknowledge death, and the emotions it brings, but we also place it into a context that fills us with hope. Hope of heaven. And it is the way in which we share our understanding death that makes being part of the Catenian Association such a joy. The Catenian family treats death in a way that shouts out our faith, in a way that is proudly Catholic.

First, we’re holding a service to acknowledge death and its impact upon us – yet this is not someone’s funeral. Most people would say we were morbid, ghoulish to do such a thing. We’re breaking society’s taboo and facing our mortality head on. We can do that confidently because we have seen the evidence for life after death and are convinced. We heard the evidence in the gospel.

Second, we’re praying for the dead. More particularly, we’re praying for people whom we knew and loved. Most people would feel deeply uneasy about doing such a thing. Why? These misgivings lie deep in our national psyche, damaged by rejection of Catholic authority. After the Reformation, praying for the dead was a sure sign of the old Catholic ways, and that was associated with treason and political intrigue. Our friends in the reformed traditions may claim that praying for the dead is not in the Bible. Well, it’s not in the Bible if you ignore today’s gospel, when Jesus prays for his dead friend Lazarus; and it’s certainly not in the Bible if you deliberately delete the Book of Maccabees from the Authorised Version. I’m sad that this blind-spot about praying for the dead, based more on politics of 500 years ago rather than theology, has left many people today struggling to understand what is going on.

Yet we’re different. We believe in the Communion of Saints. In every mass we are united with the saints in heaven and those in purgatory, all of us, dead and alive, joining in a great prayer of faith – Holy, Holy, Holy. Madness to most people: but to us it’s a key aspect of our living, practical, faith-in-action that makes us proudly Catholic.

We pray for the dead that their souls may make their way to heaven from Purgatory – itself another highly misunderstood and misrepresented Doctrine of the Church. The more I’ve learnt about it, the more I embrace the truth of purgatory. Not as a place where sinners are punished, but a spiritual state where we can be guided by Our Lord Jesus towards full peace and reconciliation with our fellow humans and true personal peace – purgatory completes our spiritual journey towards seeing our God in heaven. And through our prayers we can forgive, console, comfort, heal and strengthen those who are yearning for our support in completing their journey heavenward. There’s nothing wrong in wanting our loved ones to get to heaven; and likewise it’s not shameful for us to want to get to heaven either!. That’s why we pray, as part of God’s plan that involves humankind in working with Him to create a new heaven and a new earth. And that’s why we boldly pray for each other as we each, in turn, inevitably take our leave of this world for the next. It’s something Catenians do very well – caring for each other through our lives, caring for widows, and caring for the souls of our friends after they have died.

And thirdly, we’re gathering tonight to celebrate as a group of friends. “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food.” Isaiah’s prophecy about ‘this mountain’ refers to the place where God is to be found. On the mountain, in the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, we know that prophecy has been fulfilled by THE supreme banquet, the Eucharist, which joins together heaven and earth, celebrated on a God’s new mountain, The Church, a new Temple made up of all us baptized Catholics. As I said before, through the holy mass we are privileged to be part of a heavenly banquet that benefits all our souls, the souls of the living and souls of the dead. Let’s now enjoy the heavenly banquet together. And when Father John raises the consecrated host before us, remember the inspiring, hopeful, wonderful words of Isaiah, that we have lived to see come true: “See, this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation; the Lord is the one in whom we hoped. We exult and we rejoice that he has saved us.”

And then, after our mass, following the example of what the first Christians, we all sit down to do what we humans love doing – affirming and celebrating our friendship in a joyful meal. Madness to most people. But to us it is all part of a communal affirmation of our faith.


Isaiah 25: 6-9 On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food. On this mountain he will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the shroud enwrapping all nations, he will destroy Death for ever. The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek; he will take away his people’s shame everywhere on earth, for the Lord has said so. That day, it will be said: See, this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation; the Lord is the one in whom we hoped. We exult and we rejoice that he has saved us.

 John 11:32-45 Mary the sister of Lazarus went to Jesus, and as soon as she saw him she threw herself at his feet, saying, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, ‘Where have you put him?’ They said, ‘Lord, come and see’. Jesus wept; and the Jews said, ‘See how much he loved him.’ But there were some who remarked, ‘He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death?’ Still sighing, Jesus reached the tomb: it was a cave with a stone to close the opening. Jesus said, ‘Take the stone away.’ Martha said to him, ‘Lord, by now he will smell; this is the fourth day.’ Jesus replied, ‘Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. Then Jesus lifted up his eyes and said: ‘Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer. I knew indeed that you always hear me, but I speak for the sake of all these who stand round me, so that they may believe it was you who sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’ Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what he did believed in him.

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  1. John Bradley permalink

    Hello Philip

    A very thoughtful piece and there is much which I agree with. Having experienced bereavement recently I know the value of resting in the hope we have in Christ, where many are in denial about death, which will face us all – expecting the possibility that Christ may come again in our lifetime.

    The reason that I and many like me don’t believe in purgatory is simply our reading of scripture. I don’t honestly believe it is rooted in the political and theological debates in the reformation period. Interestingly, the early Baptists had many more issues with the Protestant State Church than they did with Catholics. In fact, the early Baptists were in the first to call in this country for religious toleration for dissenting Protestants, Catholics and Muslims – many died in consequence.

    The Lazarus passage you mention gives us confidence that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and he goes on to speak of the certainty of eternal life. You speak of “wanting our love ones to go to heaven”. I believe Jesus is affirming this as a completed work which we do not need to add to, by our prayers.

    As we consider those who have died, there is a place for prayer but I would suggest that is very much prayers of thanksgiving for their life and the way God worked through them.

    I recognise that whilst there is much written in scripture, there are still eternal mysteries about heaven and earth. The key thing is that we can trust our Lord and Saviour who has promised us eternal life but has not revealed to us every detail in advance.

    Anyway keep up the blog!


    Dear John,

    Thank you taking the trouble to write a considered response to what I said. As they say, I think we’re in danger of violently agreeing!

    I was interested in the point you made about prayer. Of course we don’t NEED to add our prayers to those made by our Lord. But (there’s always a but….) my understanding is that the spiritual world is ‘timeless’, separated from chronological time. So I can pray, say, for God’s protection for those soldiers I didn’t know who are about to be killed on the Normandy beaches nearly 70 years ago; just as much as I can pray for peace for the people I don’t know who are living now in fear of their lives in Syria; or praying for my parents who I knew very well and dearly loved. If the case of my parents i can plead for them to be granted mercy based on my personal knowledge of their good lives, celebrating their lives, as you suggest, regardless of whether they happen to be ‘trapped in time’ with me in this world or released to eternity. Yet I also believe I can pray meaningfully for people who have gone before mr or who are in this world with me, whether or not I know or knew them personally.

    It is because I believe in a meaningful life after death that it is indeed right that we should all thank God for good lives – not only for the way God had worked through people in the past, but also recognising how God continues to work through people who are in this world now and through people in the (to us, unseen) next stage of their existence. So i am comfortable praying for and with the living AND the dead. Catholics recognise that reality and call it the Communion of Saints.

    In His final discourse our Lord reminded His disciples that not all had been revealed to them, but that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26). I believe this explains why doctrines not explicitly named in the Scriptures (such as the Trinity and, the case in point, Purgatory) have come to be better understood through the centuries of (on-going) inspired theology of the Church. I was taught that there are no new doctrines but there can always be further development of our understanding of God, which grows through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

    So i’d like to think that this little blog is a contemporary example of Christians continuing to explore together these unclear areas.

    Anyway, one ‘day’ (God willing) we’ll come to a full understanding of these mysteries without the clumsiness of language and the personal baggage of our histories that we all carry. I live in the hope that that our spiritual reconciliation might take place in this world. After all. Jesus prayed that all His followers ‘might be one’. Sadly, given our human frailties, it’s more likely to take place in the healing processes of Purgatory, unless we are indeed the ones to witness the Second Coming.

    So. in the end, whatever the way it happens for us, I’m certain everything will be OK. As you say “the key thing is that we can trust our Lord and Saviour who has promised us eternal life but has not revealed to us every detail in advance.” Hear hear!

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