We’re now in November, the month when the Church particularly calls our mind to thoughts of the dead. Last week we had Remembrance Sunday. And, I want to say a few words about the importance of PRAYING for the dead.
Jesus told us, as we all know, that we must “Love our neighbour”, and, in reflecting on this command over the centuries, the saints have noted that there are both needs of the body and of the soul. And one of the 7 “Spiritual Works of Mercy” is ‘praying of the dead’ –this is one way that we ‘love our neighbour’.
But WHY should we pray for the souls of the dead? Protestants don’t. However, the Jews of Jesus’s time did. We read in the Bible, in the book of Maccabees about how Judas Maccabees, a great leader of the Jewish people in the 2nd Century before Christ, arranged for a sacrifice to be offered in the Temple, a sacrifice to atone for the sins of those who had died, so that “they would be released from their sins” (2 Macc 12:45). And this stands as a clear written record of the belief and practice of centuries of Jewish, and then Christian thought: the belief that the prayers of the living can be of help to those who have died. And there are two ways that the prayers of the living can help the dead: (i) in the judgement and (ii) in help through Purgatory.
In the Gospel we just heard Jesus say how he will come as judge(Mt 25). He will want to know how we have used our talents. Now, on earth, I can pray for someone who is living, and I can pray in particular that someone be judged leniently. And, after death, this remains true: I can pray for someone who has died, pray that God will judge him leniently. And this is the first reason we pray for the dead.
The second reason is to help souls while they are in place that we call “Purgatory”, to help them on their way to Heaven.
It is a self-evident fact that most of us when we die are not ready for Heaven. Hopefully, we are not so bad as to merit Hell. Yet, we are not really pure enough for Heaven. The Bible tells us that Heaven is a place of perfection, and if imperfect people went there then Heaven would not be perfect. So, we must be purified to be ready for Heaven. And, if we have not purified ourselves enough on earth, then we must be purified in the place called “Purgatory”.
Now, purification is not easy, it involves change. We all know that to change ourselves on earth is not easy, to break bad habits and so forth. Change in Purgatory is not easy either, and that is why the prayers of the living are important –to help them in their process of purification, of purgation, in “Purgatory”.
And this is a CONSOLING doctrine, a doctrine that I take both pleasure and pride in as a Catholic. It is consoling because it gives us hope for all those who die imperfect, like me.
That is why praying for the dead is an act of mercy, a way that we love our neighbour.
But how long should we pray for someone who has died? For a week, for a year? Well, on my Mom’s side, Grandma died 15 years ago and Grandpa 12. On my Dad’s side, Grandpa died when I was just a child. That was YEARS ago, but I STILL pray for them. God is outside time and hears ALL my prayers and are all used to help them. And so I keep praying.
A final thought: WHO should I pray for in praying for the dead? We should obviously pray for our friends and family. But loving our neighbour means also praying for the stranger. The Christian tradition puts an even greater emphasis on the need and value of being a neighbour to those who have no-one else to care for them. And so we pray for those who have no one else to pray for them –it’s how we love our neighbour.
So, in November, when we think of death and of the dead, let us not feel powerless before it, let us use the power God has given us and PRAY for the dead “that they might be released from their sins” (2 Macc 12:45).