Praying for the living and the dead

As we enter 2016, with the Year of Mercy now a month old, we are going to look at the works of mercy here in the editorial column, beginning with one of the Spiritual ones this week — praying for the living and the dead. 

As you can see from the several pages of this edition of The Anchor, it does seem that a lot of people die around Christmas. It is a very sad occasion for the survivors of the deceased, who need to be encouraged to remember past joyful Christmases with their relatives, as opposed to the tragic last one they experienced together.

The greatest gift we can give to our deceased friends and relatives, whether at Christmas or at any time of the year, is the gift of our prayers, especially the prayer of the Mass offered for their souls. We might think that they went immediately to Heaven, but if not, then they would not want us praising them in this life while they waited around in Purgatory for some stranger to help them (although they’d be grateful for that help, too).

St. John Paul II explained the doctrine of Purgatory in a general audience talk on Aug. 4, 1999.  He spoke about how in the Old Testament animal sacrifices offered to God had to be without blemish, since they would be united to God. Then, speaking about the afterlife, the pope said, “The need for integrity obviously becomes necessary after death, for entering into perfect and complete communion with God. Those who do not possess this integrity must undergo purification. This is suggested by a text of St. Paul. The Apostle speaks of the value of each person’s work which will be revealed on the day of judgment and says: ‘If the work which any man has built on the foundation [which is Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire’” (1 Cor 3:14-15).

The Polish pontiff then spoke about our praying for the Salvation of the living and the dead, giving examples from the Bible. “At times, to reach a state of perfect integrity a person’s intercession or mediation is needed. For example, Moses obtains pardon for the people with a prayer in which he recalls the saving work done by God in the past, and prays for God’s fidelity to the oath made to his ancestors” (cf. Ex 32:30, 11-13).

We are praying for the perfecting of the living and the dead. St. John Paul continued, “In following the Gospel exhortation to be perfect like the Heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:48) during our earthly life, we are called to grow in love, to be sound and flawless before God the Father ‘at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints’ (1 Thes 3:12f.). Moreover, we are invited to ‘cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit’ (2 Cor 7:1; cf. 1 Jn 3:3), because the encounter with God requires absolute purity.”

The late Holy Father explained that Purgatory is not a place, but a Spiritual state. “Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected [so as to enter Heaven]. Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church’s teaching on Purgatory. The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ Who removes from them the remnants of imperfection (cf. Ecumenical Council of Florence, Decretum pro Graecis: DS 1304; Ecumenical Council of Trent, Decretum de iustificatione: DS 1580; Decretum de purgatorio: DS 1820).”

St. John Paul then spoke about how the saints in Heaven and the Church on earth help the souls in Purgatory through our prayers. “After death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer, prayers for suffrage and love for their other brothers and sisters in the faith. Purification is lived in the essential bond created between those who live in this world and those who enjoy eternal beatitude.”

While we pray for the dead just for their eternal Salvation, when we are praying for the living we could have all sorts of intentions in mind for them. It would be good to keep in mind what Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemani: “Not My Will, but Your Will be done” (Lk 22:42).  We don’t know what God’s Will is for other people — except that He wants them to live in His love, loving God with their whole beings and loving their neighbors as themselves. St. Monica begged God that this would become the reality for her husband and sons — and it came to pass that they all converted, and one son became a saint (St. Augustine) (one would think that St. Monica and St. Augustine later helped Monica’s husband and Augustine’s brother to get into Heaven).

As we begin this year, we ask God to help us offer prayers for the living and the dead, being always mindful of God’s command that we love them as ourselves.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts