By Fr. Dylan James
I want to speak about an important way to love, a way that, sadly, many people seem to have forgotten about today, namely, the need to love those who have died by praying for them.
Now, I’m not saying that people don’t care about the dead any more. But it does seem that people have lost sense of part of what is INVOLVED in love for them, namely, praying for people who have died. One of the ‘seven spiritual works of mercy’ is to pray for the dead.
So, let me point out the three things that the dead need our prayers for.
First, they need our prayers for MERCY in the JUDGEMENT.
When I die I will stand before the judgement seat of God. It will be decided whether I will be sent to Hell or Heaven.
Part of problem today is that we tend not to really believe in Hell any more, so that we just gloss over the words we heard the Lord Jesus say, as He said many times, of this place where “there will be weeping and grinding of teeth” (Mt 25:30) for all eternity. Likewise, our modern world is so unwilling to face death that we avoid texts like the one we just heard from St Paul referring to our end coming like a “thief in the night”(1 Thess 5:1-16).
We tend, instead, to picture a comfortable middle-class Western lifestyle that will continue past death with no awkward realities like ‘judgement’ getting in the way.
But the simple truth is that I will die. And I will be judged.
And it is the prayers of the living that will assist me in receiving mercy in that judgment. This is what the Jews of our Lord’s own time believed (2 Macc 12:42-45). This what the early Christians believed, so we find St Paul praying for a dead man called Onesiphorus that “the Lord will grant him mercy”(2 Tim 1:18).
Second, after the particular judgement, if I am to go to heaven I will still almost certainly need to be PURIFIED of my sins, to be ready for the perfection of Heaven. This purification happens in the place that the Church calls ‘Purgatory’. It involves CHANGING us, and like any change it is difficult and painful. The classical image for this is of FIRE, as St. Peter puts it, being purified in fire as gold is purified in fire (1 Pet 1:7) –the impurities burned away. Thus the new Catechism quotes St Gregory referring to this “purifying fire”(CCC 1031). Many of the saints have seen visions of this, the earliest recorded being to St Perpetua, who was shown a vision of her brother in this place of “gloominess”, “thirst”, and “pain”, and yet she was also shown how her prayers brought comfort to him in that refining fire -like water in a desert.
So, our prayers for the dead bring them COMFORT in their time of purgation.
Thirdly and finally, the souls in Purgatory need our assistance to SPEED them through this process, to SHORTEN their time there. Thus we read in the book of Maccabees that sacrifices were offered in the Temple for the dead “that they might be released from their sins”(2 Macc 12:42-45). Because if I am there I will not get out until the temporal debt has been paid for my sins.
And because our loved ones are now outside the same ‘time reference’ as ourselves we should CONTINUE to pray -thus I still pray for my Grandma who died two decades ago, even though that was long ago and even though she was a lovely woman. I pray for her because I still love her, and I expect all my prayers to be counted on her behalf.
Finally, HOW should we pray? Which prayers should we offer? I think the most important thing is that we should pray REGULARLY, even if it is only Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers.
So, there are three things that the prayers of the living assist the dead in: Mercy in the judgement, comfort in the purging fire, and in a shortening of the time in that fire.
To failure to offer this assistance is to fail to love. But to be faithful in offering this assistance is to show both our love and our belief and hope in the resurrection of the dead.