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Why we pray for the Dead

November 4, 2014

Tuesday 4th November 2014

November is the traditional month when we remember the dead, and I was deeply moved by our Holy Souls mass yesterday. To the world at large is the idea of a Mass for the Dead is upsetting, incongruous and bewildering. A service about death, to pray for the dead. Are Catholics mad?

We need to stop and examine why we do things the way we do, because many outsiders may find our activities to be rather odd, even disturbing. Why the masses and prayers for the dead? Some may even see it as superstition. It is not.

But we live in a society that, despite claiming to be entirely progressive, rational, and scientific, is in complete denial about the death. This does not mean, of course, that we Christians are not dreadfully upset when someone we know and love dies. As we know, 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.

First, we’re acknowledging death and its impact upon us – and such a mass for the dead is not a 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 Jesus praying 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 Catholics are 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. Madness to most people. But to us it is all part of a communal affirmation of our faith.

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