Sunday, 4 November 2018
Praying for the Dead, 31st Sun Ordinary Time, Year B
One thing that can be said for almost all of us is that we know someone who has died, probably someone we love. And this is a thought that the Church focuses on in every November. Love tells us that we want to still do something for those who have died –a something that many people in our secular society today seek for in their grief.
We just heard Jesus give the second commandment to "love your neighbour". And love seeks manifest itself in action. There are various works of mercy that are a part of living out this command, but there is one specific act of spiritual mercy that I’d like to focus on, and that is the need to pray for the dead. If our love leads us to want to do something for our deceased loved ones, then we can find in this practice something that’s not only beneficial to them, and rooted in sound doctrine, but is deeply pastoral as a practice for us who remain. It’s one of those practices that makes me very glad to be a Catholic.
We can read in the Bible (2 Macc 12:45) that it was the Jewish practice to offer us sacrifices for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins. This Jewish practice became the early Catholic practice, and it’s rooted in two simple beliefs: That the dead will actually rise again –that there is an eternal focus and destiny to life, a focus so easily lost in our materialistic world. But also, that the prayers of the living can actually help the dead. The prayers of us who live can help each other, after all, that’s why we pray for each other. And it is no different after death. We remain united in Christ, and this union in the communion of saints enables us to pray for each other.
Someone was asking me about Purgatory this week, asking who goes there, and what it’s like, and is it painful. For those of you who don’t know, ‘Purgatory’ is the name of that place where almost everyone goes before they get to heaven –and it’s a very important place, a lot depends upon it. Let me put it this way: heaven is a place of absolute perfection, otherwise it would not be place of absolute happiness, and yet none of us here are perfect, so something must CHANGE before we get into heaven. If we are judged to not be so evil that we are condemned to hell, then we will, nonetheless, still need some serious changes made to ourselves before we get to heaven. After all, if imperfect people were allowed into heaven they would stop it being a perfect and happy place. And if we went there still imperfect our imperfection would stop us enjoying the happiness it brings.
Thus a change is needed, and this is what purgatory is about.
The word ‘Purgatory’ implies being ‘purged’ of sins, of impurities, of imperfections. The traditional image used for this place is fire -because fire purges away impurities. And, there is no point in avoiding admitting that this must be very painful –because all change is difficult. But, the theologians point out that it is a HOPE-filled pain. Someone in Purgatory knows they are going to heaven, so they have hope and joy. Someone in Purgatory wants to be perfect, and so WANTS the painful purging that is involved –they want to be perfect to enjoy heaven, and they want, even more, to be perfect to please almighty God who they love. They want to be free of the residue of their sins.
But, to return to where I began, what does this have to do with us praying for those in Purgatory?
Well, the teaching of the Church, the practice of the Jews before us, and as confirmed by countless visions to many saints, is that this purging action can be assisted by the praying of the living. We can pray:
First, for mercy in the judgment for those who have died;
Second, for consolation and strength to those undergoing to painful, even if joy-filled pain;
Third, our prayers can somehow assist and speed this cleansing process.
And all of this happens because this change, this purgation, is a work of God’s GRACE, and we can implore God that more of it to be poured out.
So, in this month of November, let us remember to pray for the dead, those we have known and loved, and also for those who have no-one else to pray for them –it’s an important way of loving our neighbour.