by Archbishop Joseph Naumann
Last week, I mentioned that one of the spiritual works of mercy is praying for the dead.
Sometimes, people inquire about the biblical basis for purgatory, as well as the entire tradition of praying for the dead. In the instruction found in the Order of Christian Funerals, there is an articulation of the spirituality that is part of the theological foundation for our custom of praying for the dead:
“The Catholic Church commends its deceased members to the mercy of God by means of its funeral rites. It likewise asks that the Christian faithful continue to offer prayer for deceased family members and friends. The annual celebration of All Souls Day, the commemoration of all the faithful departed on Nov. 2, attests to this salutary practice. Masses celebrated for the deceased on the anniversaries of death or at other significant times continue the church’s prayer and remembrance. For Catholic Christians, cemeteries, especially Catholic cemeteries, call to mind the resurrection of the dead. In addition, they are the focus for the church’s remembering of the dead and offering of prayer for them” (416).
A beautiful Catholic tradition is to request a priest to celebrate Mass for the specific intention of a deceased relative or friend. This is much more spiritually helpful to our departed loved one than a bouquet of flowers.
It is impossible to purchase a Mass! If you request that a priest offer a Mass for an intention, he has a responsibility to do so, regardless if you choose to give a financial offering or not. For those who are able, there is a customary offering (stipend) that most people wish to give. In the Archdiocese of Kansas City and throughout the province of Kansas, the usual offering is $10.
In some parts of the world, these Mass stipends are a significant portion of the financial support for priests. In the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, most of our priests choose to receive additional monthly compensation instead of retaining Mass stipends. The Mass stipends become part of the normal income for the parish and are used to support the church and her ministries.
The custom of requesting priests to offer a Mass for a loved one who recently died or on their birthday or on the anniversary of their death — their birth into eternal life — is a beautiful, spiritual way to remember those who have died. Death is not an absolute barrier for the Christian. Through prayer, our lives and the lives of those who have died can continue to connect. We can assist those who have died with our prayers and they can intercede for our intentions.
The twelfth chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees is one of the Old Testament sources for the beautiful tradition of praying for the dead. Judas Maccabeus takes up a collection from his soldiers for some of their comrades who had been slain in a recent battle. He sent the donations of his men to Jerusalem “to provide for an expiatory sacrifice.”
The author of Maccabees states: “In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.”
If you read earlier in the twelfth chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees, you discover the reason why Judas Maccabeus felt it was so important to offer prayers for these deceased soldiers. When Judas and the other surviving members of his army returned to the battlefield to give proper burial to those who had died, they discovered under the tunics of their deceased comrades amulets dedicated to pagan gods. Judas Maccabeus believed that these men were slain in the battle because they had divided hearts, having given allegiance, at least partially, to pagan gods.
At the root of every sin is a violation of the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God, you shall not have strange gods before me.” Every sin is making something — some experience, some relationship — more important than our relationship with the one true God.
Recently, I have been participating in a program that offers a spirituality for proper eating. One of the program’s assumptions is that we eat too much because we turn to food to console or comfort us rather than God. I am afraid there is a lot of truth in this assumption, at least for me.
Our American culture encourages us to worship and adore many idols. There are many American idols! Whatever we choose to make more important than our friendship with God is an idol. We can make idols of money, material things, recognition, success, sports, food, drink, sex, the opinion of others, friendships, entertainment, etc. What hidden idols do we carry underneath our “tunics”?
Our Catholic understanding of purgatory is one of the most consoling truths of our faith. Purgatory is our belief that, if we have not rejected Jesus and his Gospel by mortal sin, after our death, Our Lord in his mercy will free us — purge us — from our lingering attachments to some of the world’s idols. We do not see this so much as punishment for our sins, but rather God in his infinite mercy making room in our hearts so that we are capable of receiving his love and experiencing his everlasting joy.
During these remaining days of November, let us remember in prayer our deceased loved ones. Perhaps, we may even wish to request a Mass for their intentions. Let us also pray that God will help us recognize any idols, false gods, in our lives and give us the grace to be liberated from these unhealthy attachments.