This November, Remember to Pray for the Dead
November is a wonderful month for remembering our identity as Catholics and where we fit in the structure of the Church. The month opens with the feast of All Saints, when Catholics remember the great Catholics who have gone before them: models, intercessors, and heroes of the faith who now enjoy the beatific vision. The very next day is the feast of All Souls, when Catholics remember all those who have died, but who are not yet known to be saints: the faithful departed, the poor souls in purgatory.
These feasts recall the threefold division of members of the Church, or Body of Christ. First, there is the Church Triumphant, the saints, those who have obtained eternal joy. There is us, the Church Militant; we hope one day to share in the joy of the saints and to be members of the Church Triumphant, but that day, God willing, lies still in the future. Right now we the Church Militant are fighting what St. Paul called the good fight of the faith.
In addition, there is one more group that, unfortunately, modern Catholics too often risk forgetting about: the Church Penitent.
The latter, the Church Penitent, are those souls who have died in the faith. Yet, as St. Thomas Aquinas writes, while they have died in the faith, and have had the stain of sin washed away by their sorrow for their sins, yet they still owe something in satisfaction for those sins. This, St. Thomas reasons, explains the need for purgatory, the place where the souls of the faithful departed, who are not yet saints, go for a time of purgation after their deaths.
And with knowledge that our departed brothers and sisters, who remain, in Christ, our brothers and sisters, we know, as the Church Militant, that we owe them our help through our own prayers and good works. All divisions of the Church—Triumphant, Penitent, and Militant—are one in Christ. We in the Church Militant pray to the saints for their aid in this life. But we also have the ability, and duty, to pray for those members of the Church Penitent.
We do a great disservice to the faithful departed when we speak of our deceased friends and relatives as if they are saved and in heaven already. Too often today, we tend to assume and speak as if the deceased pass immediately from being members of the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant without passing through the Church Penitent. An unfortunate effect of this tendency is seen in a modern tendency to refer to the funeral as a “Celebration of the life of Name…” rather than a Funeral Mass or “Mass of Christian Burial.” Thus we avoid praying for the deceased’s soul altogether!
Yet a mere “celebration of life” is no help to a person who has died. By turning prayers into parties, we deny the deceased the help and aid of our prayers and good works. Scripture tells us: “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins" (2 Maccabees 12:46).
The Church gives us a host of ways to help the dead by our prayers: we can have Masses said for them; we may earn both partial and plenary (complete) indulgences for the dead that can remit the entirety of their time in purgatory; and there is an Office of the Dead in the canonical prayer hours of the Church. The Church knows that not all those who die in the faith will immediately enter God’s presence; this is why so many prayers and practices abound for the souls! If we assume that all our loved ones immediately enter the beatific vision, we both deny the Church’s teachings and deny aid to those who cannot help themselves.
We probably stop praying for the dead too soon. Souls enter heaven due to our faithful prayers, and we do not know when–so we ought to continue to pray. And we need have no fear that our prayers for the dead will be wasted. Venerable Bishop Sheen once encouraged us to continue praying for the dead with a delightful thought: he speculated that perhaps when we ourselves gained heaven, we would be greeted by people that we ourselves never knew in this life; these would be the people that we had helped in purgatory by our own prayers and good works. We will only know, in heaven, just how many people our prayers helped.
November is a fitting time to recommit to praying for the dead: for our friends and relatives who have died in the faith, for all the faithful departed, and for those poor souls who have no one to pray for them. And when November passes, let us not forget to continue our prayers for them; for until the end of time, there will always be departed souls in need of prayers.
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