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Praying for the dead- a noble thing to do

Homily for All Souls Day 2014

All Saints day and All Souls Day are two big days in the Philippines. Millions of Filipinos would take a break from our normal work, or studies and take time to go to the Church and to the cemeteries offering prayers for our departed loved ones. I remember the first time I went to the cemetery with my family on All Saints Day, I was really amazed. I was amazed to see many people gathering around the graves of their loved ones praying and lighting candles. It was just  fascinating to see people, young and old, boys and girls, gathering around the graves praying for the dead. Another thing I found amazing there was the way some people pay respect to their dead relatives. Some of them not only offer prayers or light candles or lay flowers. They would also put something on the tombstone or over the grave something that remind them of their loved ones, such as the favourite food of the deceased, favourite beverage or drink, etc. Seeing that, the kid in me kicked in. I just wanted to wander around the cemetery and satisfy my curiosity about the way people honour their dead relatives. However, I had to suppress my curiosity because my father would want us to go and visit each grave of our relatives, spend some 15- 20 minutes in prayer for each of the grave. And because I come from a big clan, I could still remember we literally spent the whole day just moving from one grave to another, praying and lighting candles. And I didn’t have so much fun in that. In fact, I thought then, this is one downside of having come from a big clan. And I could only ask myself: ‘Why bother praying for the dead? They’re dead anyway? I don’t think they really care!’

That was my childhood curiosity.

However looking back at it now, I realized I was being ignorant, because praying for the dead is indeed a big part of my being a Christian, and a Catholic at that. It is in fact part and parcel of our faith. Praying for the dead is one noble act that we can do to help our departed loved ones especially those who are in purgatory.

I’ll just insert in here a small Catechesis about this particular doctrine of Purgatory we Catholics believe in.

Purgatory or purification is a  “state [wherein lay those– my own word] who die in God’s friendship but who still need their  personal sins to be expiated (through the merits of Christ) and who should grow spiritually before enjoying the  beatific vision[1] It is to be admitted though that this doctrine of purgatory however has no clear biblical basis, as Richard McBrien would suggest,  but as McBrien would add “this is not to say that there is no basis at all for the doctrine.[2] There is rather a hint of this in Matthew’s  gospel when Jesus pointed out that there is no forgiveness of  those who sin against the Holy Spirit either in ‘this age or in the age to come’ ( Mt 12:32).  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict VXI) when asked about the doctrine on purgatory answered; “My view is that if Purgatory did not exist, we should have to invent it… [because] he said, “few things are as immediate, as human and as widespread- at all times and in all cultures- as prayer for one’s own departed dear ones.”[3] This doctrine therefore is not just an invention of the Church. It is in the Church’s practice of prayer and penance therefore that we can trace  the real foundation of this doctrine.[4] This is affirmed by  the teaching of Lumen gentium in speaking of communion of the whole Mystical Body of Christ. The Council taught:

The Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honoured with great respect the memory of the dead; and because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins (2 Mac 12:46) she offers her suffrages for them.[5]

In saying this  the Council expresses the truth that even after death there is still a possibility for the forgiveness of sins. The purgatory then serves as the cleansing, purifying and sanctifying process for the dead ones who  have decided for God yet not very consistent in living out with their commitment to God.[6] It can also be said that purgatory is God himself purifying, cleansing  and sanctifying us with the fire of his love.[7] This doctrine is definitively taught by the Church in the Council of Trent asserting that  “there is purgatory and that the souls detained there are helped by the acts of intercession of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.”[8] (End of Catechesis)

This then lead us to one of the powerful ways we can offer in praying for the dead- i.e. Offering a Mass or Holy Masses for them. There is no other prayer that can benefit more to our departed loved ones in the state of purification  than the Holy Mass. If I can only share with you the beauty of the Mass and the benefits it has for us and for all the dead, that would be a great grace. But there’s no word that can best describe the mystery of the Holy Mass. All I can say is that it is so beautiful and that I am so humbled to be able to celebrate it. St Thomas Aquinas said: ‘The Mass, obtains for sinners in mortal sin the grace of repentance. For the just, it obtains remission of venial sins and the pardon of the pain due to sin. It obtains an increase of habitual (sanctifying) grace, as well as all the graces necessary for their special needs.’ This is only a glimpse of the beauty and the benefits of the Holy Mass. Pope St John Paul II even  called the Eucharist, and I can’t agree more, as the Church’s most valuable treasure. In his encyclical letter  Ecclesia de Eucharistia (#9), St John Paul II wrote: ‘The Eucharist, as Christ’s saving presence in the community of the faithful and its spiritual food, is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey through history.’

So let us thank God for the gift of the Holy Mass. Let us thank God for his generosity to give us his life-giving and soul enriching love for us through the Eucharist. At the same time to observe this month of November as a month to remember in our prayers our departed loved ones, let us make the effort to attend Mass and offer Mass for them.

I invite you to pray with me for all our deceased friends and relatives.

Into your hands, Father of mercies, we commend our brothers and sisters who have died, in the sure and certain hope that, together with all who have died in Christ, they will rise with him on the last day.

We give thanks for your blessings which you bestowed upon them in this life: they are signs to us of your goodness and of our fellowship with the saints in Christ.

Merciful Lord, turn toward us and listen to our prayers: open the gates of paradise to your sons and daughters and help us who remain to comfort one another with assurances of faith, until we all meet in Christ and are with you and with our brothers and sisters forever. Amen.

[1] Gerald O’Collins and Edward Farrugia, A Concise Dictionary of Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 217.

[2] Richard McBrien, Catholicism (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994), 1143.

[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report (San  Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985),146.

[4]German Bishop’s Conference, The Church’s Confession of Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults. Ed. Mark Jordan (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 347.

[5] Vatican Council II, Lumen gentium, n. 50.

[6] German Bishop’s Conference, The Church’s Confession of Faith, 347.

[7] German Bishop’s Conference, The Church’s Confession of Faith, 347.

[8] J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, The Christian Faith: In the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th  revised edition (New York: Alba House, 2001), 2310.

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