This week we will be celebrating the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, November 1st and 2nd. These two Feasts are a reminder that we are members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church and that Mystical Body is more than the visible church we see in the world. The Church is made of the “Church Triumphant,” those who are in heaven, the “Church Militant,” those who are here in this world, fighting the good fight and seeking to be holy, and the “Church Suffering,” the souls in purgatory; those souls on their way to heaven, but being purified from the temporal effects of their sins.
Why do Catholics pray for the dead?
The earliest Scriptural reference to prayers for the dead comes in the second book of Maccabees. The books of Maccabees were among the latest written books found in the Old Testament. The Church declared them inspired texts, but the protestants reformers would later remove them from the Old Testament. They recount the struggle of the Jewish people for freedom against the Greeks who occupied and persecuted the Jewish people, desecrated the temple, trying to extinguish their Jewish faith.
The second book of Maccabees recounts how Judas Maccabee, the Jewish leader, led his troops into battle around 163 B.C. When the battle ended he directed that the bodies of those Jews who had died be buried. As soldiers prepared their slain comrades for burial, they discovered that dead were wearing amulets (pagan jewelry promising protection of the gods), taken as booty from a pagan Temple. This violated the law of Deuteronomy and so Judas and his soldiers prayed that God would forgive the sin these men had committed (II Maccabees 12:39-45).
This is the first indication in Scripture of a belief that prayers offered by the living can help free the dead from any sin that would separate them from God in the life to come. It is echoed in the New Testament when Paul offers a prayer for a man named Onesiphorus who had died: “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day”(II Timothy 1:18). The cave-like tombs outside the ancient city walls of Rome, which we call catacombs, bear evidence that members of the Roman Christian community gathered there to pray for their fellow believers who lay buried there. By the fourth century prayers for the dead are mentioned in Christian literature as though they were already a longstanding custom.
The practice of praying for the dead is rooted first in Christian belief in the everlasting life promised in Jesus’ teachings and foreshadowed by his disciple’s experience that God had raised him from the dead. After death, even though separated from our earthly body, we yet continue a personal existence. It is as living persons that God invites us into a relationship whose life transcends death.
Praying for the dead is also deeply embedded in our Christian faith in the Mystical Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life – sound familiar? We say these words in the Creed every Sunday at Mass. Members of this community who are living often assist each other in faith by prayers and other forms of spiritual support. Christians who have died continue to be members of the communion of saints. We believe that we can assist them by our prayers, and they can assist us by theirs.
At every funeral Mass we include at the Liturgy and later at the grave, prayers that express the hope that God will free the person who has died from any burden of sin and prepare a place for him or her in heaven. Death remains a mystery. As the Apostle John says in his first epistle:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.”
And St. Paul reminds us: “As it is written, what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” 1 Corinthians 2: 9. What incredibly hopeful words to us today as we look forward, not in fear, but in hope and joy to the promise of eternal life with God.