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Prayer for the Dead

by Bishop Michael J. Sheridan

Descriptive Title

Prayer for the Dead, Part 1


"The church designates each November as a month dedicated to praying for the dead. The Catholic practice of prayer for the dead is bound up with our belief in the reality of purgatory. . . . Daily prayer for all the faithful departed is a practice that the church has encouraged throughout her history." Of particular importance, however, are the funeral rites celebrated at the time of death. A brief review of the "Order of Christian Funerals" is offered for those whose duty it is to provide for the burial of their loved ones. This document includes Part 1 and Part 2 from the Bishop's Sheridan's column in the Catholic Herald.

Larger Work

Catholic Herald Online

Publisher & Date

Diocese of Colorado Springs, November 2, 2007 and November 16, 2007

The church designates each November as a month dedicated to praying for the dead. The Nov. 2 feast, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day), is a day of special intercession for all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1032) teaches us that prayer for the dead is one of the spiritual works of mercy.

Why should we pray for the dead? Isn’t our fate sealed at the moment of our death? What good does prayer do? When we die we are destined for either heaven or hell and no amount of prayer can change that.

The Catholic practice of prayer for the dead is bound up with our belief in the reality of purgatory. Unless we die in a state of perfection, i.e., not only with all our sins forgiven, but also with all temporal punishment due to sin remitted, we cannot enter heaven. Nothing imperfect can enter the presence of God. The Catechism teaches that "all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned." (nos. 1030-1031)

So, yes indeed, our fate is sealed at death, but for those whose sins have been forgiven — those destined for the eternal joys of heaven — but still in need of final purification God’s mercy, purgatory exists as God’s final act of mercy toward the sinner. When we pray for the dead we do not pray that those who died without their sins forgiven will be taken to heaven. Rather, we pray that those souls in purgatory will be granted swiftly their eternal reward.

Because we do not know whose souls are in purgatory and whose are not, we pray for all the faithful departed, especially those who were closest to us in this life or those most in need of prayer. Even though a person may have led an exemplary life, no one but God knows if that person went immediately to heaven at the moment of death. For that reason it is an injustice to assume that any one of the faithful departed (unless canonized by the church) does not need our prayers. Because the souls in purgatory cannot pray for themselves, they rely on our prayers.

The practice of prayer for the dead actually precedes the Christian era. The Old Testament’s Second Book of Maccabees relates the story of how Judas Maccabeus called for prayer for his comrades who had fallen in battle. The Scriptures tell us that Judas Maccabeus and his soldiers "turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed [by their dead brothers] might be wholly blotted out." (2 Mc 12:42)

The sacred text continues: "In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." (2 Mc 12:43b-45)

Similarly, throughout Christian history prayer for the dead has been held in the highest esteem by Catholics. When I was a boy, it was not uncommon that one of the daily Masses in a parish was a Requiem Mass offered each day for the faithful departed. This was because so many of the faithful asked that Masses be offered for their deceased relatives and friends. It is a revered practice of the church that the faithful give an offering to the priest so that Mass might be offered for the eternal rest of one who has died. These Mass stipends represent a very concrete expression of love for and spiritual solidarity with those who have died.

Prayers for the dead should be part of our daily prayer, not just in the month of November, but throughout the year. The practice of remembering the dead at the conclusion of grace after meals is an excellent way of incorporating prayer for the dead into our daily prayers, just as we pray for them in the Eucharistic Prayer of every Mass. The custom of visiting and praying at the graves or other places of entombment of the dead is another laudable practice.

All Souls Day reminds us of our union with the faithful departed — a union that cannot be broken even by death. Let us never fail to pray for our dearly departed.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.

And may perpetual light shine upon them.

May they rest in peace. Amen.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two articles dealing with prayer for the dead. In our next issue Bishop Sheridan will reflect on the Rite of Christian Funerals.)

Part Two

Daily prayer for all the faithful departed is a practice that the church has encouraged throughout her history. Of particular importance, however, are the funeral rites celebrated at the time of death. A brief review of the "Order of Christian Funerals" may be of help to those whose duty it is to provide for the burial of their loved ones.

Planning the Funeral Rites

The family of the deceased (or those charged with the funeral arrangements) should contact the parish priest as soon as possible after death has occurred. The priest will assist the family in planning the funeral rites, as well as arranging for the time of the funeral Mass. It is important to contact the parish before making final plans with the funeral director. This will help to ensure that the priest and the church are available at a time requested by the family.

The Vigil (or Wake)

The Vigil is the first part of the of the funeral rites. The family and friends of the deceased have the opportunity to pay their respects and offer prayers for the repose of the soul of the deceased. The "Order of Christian Funerals" contains beautiful prayers for the deceased as well as for the consolation of those close to the deceased. In addition to these prayers, the Rosary is a wonderful prayer in which all can participate. The vigil may be conducted by a priest, deacon or lay person.

It is very fitting that the Vigil be held in the parish church when and where this is possible, but a funeral home may also fittingly be used. In addition to prayer, the Vigil is a most appropriate time for family and friends to share memories of the deceased. The setting usually allows for the display of photographs or other mementos that recall the life of the deceased.

In spite of contrary opinions, eliminating the Vigil from the funeral rites does not lessen the grief of family and friends. In fact, the Vigil allows the community to express grief appropriately, as well as providing an opportunity for the community to offer condolences and support to those who are grieving.

The Funeral Mass

The funeral Mass is at the center of the funeral rites and is certainly the most important part of those rites. The remains (ideally the body) of the deceased should be brought to the church one last time so that there the Christian community may pray for the eternal repose of the one who has died. The Scriptures that are proclaimed and the prayers of the funeral Mass are also efficacious for the renewal of hope in the resurrection of the dead for those who participate in the funeral Mass.

It is very distressing to hear from our priests and deacons that often family members will deny the deceased a funeral Mass. Every Catholic has a right to a funeral Mass, unless the person has left the Catholic Church or otherwise left instructions that there is to be no funeral Mass. Simply because family members may not be practicing Catholics or because only a very few people are expected to attend the Mass, it is not legitimate for these reasons to eliminate Mass from the funeral rites. When the funeral Mass is not celebrated, not only is the deceased denied this most powerful prayer, but the Christian community is also denied the opportunity to offer Mass for their deceased friend.

The homily that is given at the funeral Mass should expound on the Sacred Scriptures that were proclaimed and should give emphasis to the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection in which we participate by faith and baptism into Christ. The priest or deacon who preaches the homily may, of course, relate the mystery of redemption to the life of the deceased. The homily should not become a eulogy.

It is permitted for a family member or friend of the deceased to offer a brief reflection at the end of the Mass and before the Final Commendation. This reflection is to be spiritual in nature and appropriate for a liturgical setting. Ordinarily there should be only one such reflection, and it should be read from a prepared text that has been shared with the celebrant of the Mass beforehand.

The music for the funeral Mass is to be sacred music that is fitting for the service. Secular songs that were favorites of the deceased are not appropriate for Mass, but could be sung or performed at the Vigil.

The Disposition of the Body

The disposition of the remains of the deceased that is preferred by the church is the interment or entombment of the body. Cremation is permitted provided that it is not an expression of disrespect for the body or a repudiation of the church’s teaching on the resurrection of the body. If cremation is chosen, it is preferred that the body be brought to church for the funeral Mass and the cremation take place afterwards. If cremation takes place immediately after death, the cremated remains may be brought to the church for the funeral Mass.

When the body of one who has died is cremated, the remains are to be placed in a worthy container with the name of the deceased on it. The cremated remains are to be taken to a cemetery or mausoleum for entombment as soon as possible after the cremation or after the funeral Mass. The cremated remains may never be kept in the home or any place other than a cemetery or mausoleum. The cremated remains may never be scattered or mixed with the remains of another person. The priest or deacon who presides at the funeral rites is charged with ensuring that the cremated remains are properly buried or entombed in a timely manner.

Our faith tells us death is not the end, but rather the beginning of the fullness of life. Our funeral rites convey that truth beautifully, and these rites should always be carried out with dignity and respect.

May all the faithful departed rest in peace.

© Catholic Herald Online

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