Sunday, 6 November 2016
Praying for the Dead, 32rd Sunday Ordinary Time, Year C
See an article on this topic here
2 Macc 7:1-14; Lk 20:27-38
We're now in the month of November, the month of the year when the Church in a more focused way remembers the dead. In particular, we remember to PRAY for the dead. And we pray for the dead not because we despair for them but rather because of the opposite: because of what we HOPE for them. Our first reading and gospel both remind us very clearly of what it is that we hope that the dead: the resurrection of the body.
In the gospel we heard the Lord Jesus say something about the resurrection that His hearers probably found a little unexpected: while He spoke of the resurrection of the body He nonetheless indicated that the body will not be like our bodies are at present. At present, our bodies are prone to sickness, to suffering, to all sorts of limitations -but it will not be so in Heaven. This point is elaborated on in many places elsewhere in the New Testament where it speaks of the changed transfigured glory of the resurrected body. For example, in St Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians he says that we "we shall all be changed... the dead will be raised imperishable... because our present perishable nature must put on imperishability and this mortal nature must put on immortality”(1 Cor 15: 52-53).
But it is not only our bodies that will need to change: our souls also will need to be transformed from sinful imperfection to sinless perfection. Heaven is a place of perfection, and it could hardly remain so if imperfect people were allowed into it. So, the logic of the perfection of heaven requires that we be purified before we enter it. And this purification, this purging of our sins, is what happens in the place called Purgatory.
Now, I want to make a point about change: Change is never easy. There are many things in my character now that I try to change, many little bad habits that I try to break, and many new good habits that I try to acquire, and any change is difficult. I say this to make a comparison with the change, the purgation, that we must undergo in Purgatory -that change will be even more dramatic and thus even more difficult. The traditional images used for Purgatory all speak of it in terms of fire and pain, and such images conjure up an image of the difficulty that must be involved in this change.
There are two things, however, that ease the pain of those in purgatory. First, the pain and difficulty of Purgatory is greatly eased by the fact that Purgatory is a place of great hope because those who are there know that they are already guaranteed a place in the joy of heaven, it is only a matter of time for them –by sending them to Purgatory the Judgement has spared them of Hell. Second, and this takes me back to where I began, the difficulty of those in Purgatory can be helped by the prayers of those of us who live.
So what do we pray for when we pray for the dead? We pray that God will have mercy on them in the judgement. We pray that God will speed the through their passage in Purgatory. And, we pray that God will ease and comfort them while they make their purgation. And the Tradition and countless private revelations to different saints have shown us that the prayers of the living are of great help to those who are dead, a point more definitively taught by Scripture itself which says, "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins"(2 Macc 12:46).
There is an insert in this week's newsletter summarising why the Church tells us to pray for the end, and the doctrine of purgatory, see here
And I would commend three particular practices to you as prayers for the dead: have a Mass offered for those who have died (see here); pray the Rosary for those who have died -it is a prayer particularly beloved by our Blessed Mother; and say the Divine Mercy Chaplet –a prayer particularly suited for calling upon God's mercy.
To come back to where I began: Why do we pray for the dead? We pray for them because we have hope for them, hope of the glory of the resurrection. And because we have hope we pray that that hope will be realised with the aid of our prayers.
As St. Ambrose so beautifully put it in the 4th Century, "We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord."