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November – why we pray for the Dead

November 19, 2017

November is the traditional month when we Catholics particularly remember the dead. Yet to the world at large is the idea of a Mass for the Dead is bewildering. We need to stop and examine why we do things the way we do, because the reasons we have masses and prayers for the dead may have become a bit muddled.

First, we’re acknowledging death and its impact upon us – we’re breaking society’s taboo and facing our mortality head on. Most people nowadays completely ignore death, they avoid talking about it, probably because they are frightened of the unknown. But we can be confident in the face of death because we are Christians. We know it is not the end of life. We believe in life after death. We have heard the evidence that there is life after death, and we have been convinced by the evidence.

Last Tuesday I attended a funeral for a member of my family who was an Orthodox priest. Held in a remote little church in the heart of the Lake District countryside, it was a deeply moving occasion. It was poignant and spiritually uplifting because it was unashamedly a litany of prayers for the soul of someone we knew and loved, a plea for God to forgive him any sins he may have committed in this life and an appeal for God to speed him on his way to heaven. Because it was a faith-filled occasion, it was actually a joyful occasion, and at the graveside the actual burial ended with a loud cry of faith, ‘Christ is Risen. Alleluia!’

In tonight’s Mass we are doing the same: we’re praying for the dead. More particularly, we’re praying for people whom we knew and loved. And we are calling on the Communion of Saints to pray for their souls too. We Catholics firmly believe in the Communion of Saints. In every mass we are united with the saints in heaven, all of us, in heaven and on earth, joining in a great prayer of faith – Holy, Holy, Holy. This is a key aspect of our living, practical, faith-in-action that makes us proudly Catholic.

We pray for the dead that their souls too might complete their journey to heaven, a journey started during their lives on earth and continuing after their death through a process of purification, what we call Purgatory.

Purgatory is often a 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 for the dead 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.

Tonight’s Mass for the Dead is all of us, as a Christian community, together affirming of our faith, and giving us the opportunity to be strengthened in preparation for our own journey towards heaven, that we may not be caught out by an unexpected, untimely death.




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