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Why pray for those who are no longer with us?
When we were still a Christian society, people generally believed in an after-life which would be either heaven or hell.
Now that the culture is mostly atheistic or at least indifferent to God, not many think about the afterlife. Too occupied with trivia, the latest media scandal, the irrepressible urge to use the iPhone, to watch TV, the obsession with sport, with trivial pursuits, we do not have time to reflect about the important things.
Since the concept of sin has disappeared, there is little awareness of the possibility of eternal punishment. Many believers argue that God is too merciful and we are destined for an eternity of bliss or one of annihilation.
How a Bible believer can say there is no hell or that those who don't go to God just disappear, defies logic. The Bible has innumerable references to hell including words spoken by Christ himself. Belief in an immortal soul makes it impossible to just disappear into nothingness.
Another casualty of confused faith is Purgatory. This concept disappeared with Protestantism. Purgatory is not a medieval invention intended to raise money for Masses to be said. That was the theory of the early Reformers.
We Catholics are indeed blessed to believe in Purgatory, a doctrine which belongs to the very beginning of the Church.
There are quotations in the Scripture which indicate the existence of a stage where souls who have the certitude of heaven are awaiting their entry into glory and longing to see the face of God but need to be totally purified. The Book of Maccabees asks us to pray and offer alms for the dead that they may be released from their sins.
We are familiar with the quote of St Monica to St Augustine: "Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be."
There are inscriptions in the Catacombs which ask for prayers for the souls of the departed.
Unfortunately, many practising Catholics will say that for their part they do not agree with the fact that there is a Purgatory. How many funeral Masses do we attend which are merely a "celebration of the life" of the deceased? How many homilies do we hear which are really eulogies if not unofficial canonisations of the deceased? How many people will tell you that we do not pray for but only to the departed?
In every Mass which is celebrated, the Eucharistic Prayer makes a reference to the souls of the faithful departed. The priest intercedes for them on behalf of the congregation, asking the Father that he might give them eternal rest.
On 1 November, we celebrated the Feast of All Saints, all those who are now in heaven. All Souls Day was on 2 November, a vivid reminder that there are many who, though certain of the Beatific Vision, long for the time when they will see God face to face.
We are a community of love, those who are living on earth, bonded intimately with the dead, with those who are in glory and those awaiting glory. We, the members of the Mystical Body share a unique relationship with our loved ones.
It is comforting to know that those loved ones for whom we mourn are with us at Mass, with the choirs of angels, with Mary, Joseph and all the saints, with the congregation awaiting the coming of Christ at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. With them with sing: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!"
The grace of Christ circulates throughout the Body. The merits of Christ are offered to all. We are privileged to participate in this grace. We are privileged to be able to join with Christ and offer our prayers and sacrifices for the growth of this Body. Whatever we do which is good contributes to the good of the whole and whenever we sin, we also take something away from the Body.
St Leonard suggests that it is a good idea to ensure that Masses will be said for the repose of our soul as we can't always be sure that others will pray for us. With the erosion of belief in Purgatory, it becomes more and more urgent to pray for the dead.
Most of us hope to die with the consolation of the Church. We hope to receive the Sacrament of the Sick and the Bread of Life which will help us on our ultimate journey. There are many in other parts of the world who do not have the hope of receiving any spiritual help.
Attachment to sin
All of us are sinners. If we go to confession regularly we are blessed to hear the priest's words: "Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
Our sins are forgiven yet we all have a certain attachment to sin, to our pet faults, to our self-love which can become self-indulgence, to gossip, to ... the list is endless.
St Catherine of Genoa describes in her Treatise on Purgatory, the knowledge of the soul at the moment of death, that self-knowledge which makes us realise that we are not completely pure in the sight of God. We need to lose "the rust and stains of sin".
In Purgatory, says St Catherine, the soul is longing for the face to face vision of God and mourning those defects which prevent it from entering Heaven.
Of course if we receive the Sacrament of the Sick or obtain a Plenary Indulgence fulfilling the required conditions and having a perfect disposition, we can avoid Purgatory. But we need to totally lose our attachment to sin. A perfect act of charity can enable us to enter Heaven. However, we can never be sure that this is the case for every soul and we must continue to pray for our dead.
"Lest we forget" are words enshrined in our national ethos. We remember these in the Ode of Remembrance. Let us remember those who have gone before us in our Masses and in our prayers.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 27 No 11 (December 2014 - January 2015), p. 12
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