Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Masses for the Repose of Souls

by Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders gives the history of the practice of having Masses said for the repose of the souls our deceased loved ones and how this is linked to our belief in Purgatory. "We believe that if a person has died fundamentally believing in God but with venial sins and the hurt caused by sin, then God in His divine love and mercy will first purify the soul. After this purification has been completed, the soul will have the holiness and purity needed to share in the beatific vision in heaven."

Larger Work

Arlington Catholic Herald



Publisher & Date

Diocese of Arlington, November 3, 2005

The offering of Masses for the repose of the soul of the faithful departed is linked with our belief in purgatory. We believe that if a person has died fundamentally believing in God but with venial sins and the hurt caused by sin, then God in His divine love and mercy will first purify the soul. After this purification has been completed, the soul will have the holiness and purity needed to share in the beatific vision in heaven.

While each individual faces judgment before the Lord and must render an account of his life, the communion of the Church shared on this earth continues, except for those souls damned to hell. The Vatican Council II affirmed, "This sacred council accepts loyally the venerable faith of our ancestors in the living communion which exists between us and our brothers who are in the glory of Heaven or who are yet being purified after their death..." (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 51). Therefore, just as we pray for each other and share each other's burdens now, the faithful on earth can offer prayers and sacrifices to help the departed souls undergoing purification, and no better prayer could be offered than that of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical "Mirae caritatis" (1902) beautifully elaborated this point and emphasized the connection between the communion of saints with the Mass: "The grace of mutual love among the living, strengthened and increased by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, flows, especially by virtue of the Sacrifice [of the Mass], to all who belong to the communion of saints. For the communion of saints is simply ... the mutual sharing of help, atonement, prayers, and benefits among the faithful, those already in the heavenly fatherland, those consigned to the purifying fire, and those still making their pilgrim way here on earth. These all form one city, whose head is Christ, and whose vital principle is love. Faith teaches that although the august Sacrifice can be offered to God alone, it can nevertheless be celebrated in honor of the saints now reigning in Heaven with God, who has crowned them, to obtain their intercession for us, and also, according to apostolic tradition, to wash away the stains of those brethren who died in the Lord but without yet being wholly purified." Think of this point: The Holy Mass transcends time and space, uniting the faithful in heaven, on earth and in purgatory into a holy Communion, and the holy Eucharist Itself augments our union with Christ, wipes away venial sins and preserves us from future mortal sins (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1391-1396). Therefore, the offering of Mass and other prayers or sacrifices for the intentions of the faithful departed are good and holy acts.

This practice is not new. The Catechism asserts, "From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic Sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God" (No. 1032).

We also see evidence of prayers for the dead in early Church history. Inscriptions uncovered on tombs in the Roman catacombs of the second century evidence this practice. For example, the epitaph on the tomb of Abercius (d. 180), Bishop of Hieropolis, in Phrygia begs for prayers for the repose of his soul. Tertullian in 211 attested to observing the anniversary of death with prayers. Moreover, the Canons of Hippolytus (c. 235) explicitly mention the offering of prayers for the dead during the Mass.

The testimony of the Church Fathers beautifully support this belief: St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), in one of his many catechetical discourses, explained how at Mass both the living and dead are remembered, and how the eucharistic sacrifice of our Lord is of benefit to sinners, living and dead. St. Ambrose (d. 397) preached, "We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord."

While the offering of Mass for the repose of an individual's soul became normative, a tradition evolved where a special Mass was offered once a year for all of the faithful departed, remembering in particular the poor souls in purgatory. In the sixth century, the Benedictine monasteries held a solemn commemoration of deceased members at Whitsuntide, the days following Pentecost. In Spain, St. Isidore (d. 636) attested to a celebration on the Saturday before Sexagesima Sunday (the second Sunday before Lent, the eighth before Easter, in the old calendar). In Germany, Widukind, Abbot of Corvey (d. 980) recorded a special ceremony for the faithful departed on Oct. 1. St. Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny (d. 1048), decreed for all of the Cluniac monasteries that special prayers be offered and the Office of the Dead sung for all of the souls in purgatory on Nov. 2, the day after All Saints. The Benedictines and Carthusians adopted that same devotion. Soon thereafter, Nov. 2 was adopted as the feast of All Souls for the whole Church.

Other customs have arisen over time in the celebration of All Souls Day. The Dominicans in the 15th century instituted a custom of each priest offering three Masses on the feast of All Souls. Pope Benedict XIV in 1748 approved this practice, and it rapidly spread throughout Spain, Portugal and Latin America. During World War I, Pope Benedict XV, recognizing the number of war dead and the numerous Masses that could not be fulfilled because of destroyed Churches, granted all priests the privilege of offering three Masses on All Souls Day: one for the particular intention, one for all of the faithful departed and one for the intentions of the Holy Father. At this time, parishes often had a novena of Masses, whereby the souls of the faithful departed would be remembered particularly on All Souls Day, and then on eight subsequent days.

One may wonder, "What if the person's soul has already been purified and has gone to heaven?" We on earth know neither the judgment of God nor the divine time frame; so, there is always goodness in remembering our departed and commending them to God through prayer and sacrifice. However, if indeed the departed soul has been purified and now rests in God's presence in heaven, then those prayers and sacrifices offered benefit the other souls in purgatory through the love and mercy of God.

Having celebrated All Souls Day (Nov. 2) this week, let us remember to have a Mass offered for the repose of the souls of our loved ones, not only at the time of their actual death but also on the date of their natural births or their births into eternal life. We must never forget that our relatives, who may well be undergoing the time of purification in purgatory, need our prayers and the tremendous graces of atonement that flow from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Christendom's Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. © Arlington Catholic Herald

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