Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Praying for the Dead

By Mitchell

It is a good thing to pray for the dead, as Judas Maccabees does in 2 Maccabees (43-46):

"And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection, (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,) And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins."

Today is All Souls' Day, a day when we recall the dead, especially those who may have been near and dear to us. It is a time when we should reflect on the universality of the Church, among both the living and the dead. It is when we, the Church Millitant, unify our voices in prayer for the Church Suffering, in hopes that they may soon join with the Church Triumphant in Heaven.

The doctrine of Purgatory is a complex one, seeing as to how it's never mentioned explicitly in the Bible. Of all the stumbling blocks between Catholics and non-Catholics, it's the one that, in my experience, causes the most difficulty. The Catechism teaches us that all sin, unfortunately, has a life of its own and may have bad effects even after the sinner repents. (Think of it as the scar tissue that remains even after a successful operation to remove a tumor.) Our repentance for our sins, when offered truly and sincerely, includes our desire to repair the damage done by these sins - the stain left on the fabric of our soul. Depending on the course of our lives, this repair work may or may not be complete before the person dies. (#1030-32)

We are reminded in Revelation that "nothing unclean shall enter" Heaven (21:27). Since God is perfect holiness, it is our destiny to achieve that same holiness ("You shall be holy, for I am holy," 1 Pet. 1:15–16). For those of us who retain the stains of our sins, Purgatory is the place where we are made ready, where we assume the cleanliness that allows us to be next to God.

Eastern and Western tradition differs on the exact form which Purgatory takes; the Eastern Catholic Church doesn't use the word Purgatory, a Latin word, instead referring to it as "the Final Theosis." In this time the remnants of our humans nature are transformed, and we come to share in the divine life of the Trinity. Rather than seeing this as a place to "sit and suffer," the Eastern Fathers of the Church described the Final Theosis as being a journey. While this journey can entail hardships, there are also powerful glimpses of joy. (Thanks to Anthony Dragani for the concise explanation.) Nonetheless, whatever the the differences, both East and West concur in the need for a waystation enroute to Heaven, and that it is a good thing to pray for the dead.

In January of this year, following the death of Johnny Carson, I wrote of the misunderstandings that exist in our contemporary society regarding the meaning of life and death. At the time I mentioned that some of these thoughts might be more appropriate for All Souls' Day, and that I might repeat them then. Well, here we are; and here they are:


[On the proper Catholic attitude about death.] This is true particularly especially when one looks at what the modern Catholic funeral has become. Leon Suprenant of Catholics United for the Faith puts it well, saying “the dominant mindset is that the deceased assuredly is ‘in a better place,’ and thus the funeral rite itself should be nothing other than a mini-canonization.” The Catholic writer James Hitchcock comments on this tendency:

This compulsory praise includes a compulsory insistence that the deceased is already in heaven, indeed has always been one of God's favorite people, probably now sitting in that privileged place that Jesus rebuked his apostles for coveting.

This, Hitchcock goes on to say, completely misses the point of the Catholic funeral:

The old funeral liturgy was somber, with black vestments and mournful chant, the most shattering of which was the "Dies Irae" ("day of wrath"), reminding people that they would have to answer for themselves on that day "when even the just will need intercession". Since the Second Vatican Council, the emphasis of the service changed to hope, and white vestments, symbolic of the Resurrection, are now always used.

But hope is not the same as presumption, which is precisely what some funerals now are. Another joke tells of the man who died at the same time as Mother Teresa of Calcutta and found himself a few places behind her at the Pearly Gates. He is complacent that he will be admitted until he hears Saint Peter exclaim sternly, "But Teresa, you could have done a lot more."

Hitchcock touches on what I think is one of the major reasons why Catholics have lost touch with the true meaning of the funeral Mass: the eliminaiton of the Dias Irae as a mandatory part of the liturgy. As Hitchcock says, it was a reminder of the high stakes that accompany us in life, and in death. When this was eliminated from the liturgy, as part of the new Mass following Vatican II, this somber realization dimmed as well.

I have an interesting piece on the Dias Irae that I’d planned to hold on to until November 2, All Souls' Day, when it would have made a nice meditation (maybe when that date comes around I’ll use it again). In the meantime, it seems appropriate to introduce it. It’s from the transcript of the television commentary of Fr. Leonard Hurley during the funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy. (Back in the days of Latin, televised Masses often featured a commentator, who would explain to the viewers what was going on during different parts of the Mass.) At this point in the liturgy Cardinal Cushing, the celebrant, is reciting the Dias Irae:

This hymn is a Christian meditation on the meaning of death. A non-Catholic has described this magnificent hymn as solitary in its excellence. The secret of its irresistible power lies in the awful grandeur of the theme. Intense earnestness and pathos of a poet, the simple majesty and the solemn music of its language, the stately meter, the triple rhythm, all combine to produce an overwhelming effect, as if we heard the final crash of the universe, the commotion of the openings of graves, the trumpet of the archangels summoning the living and the dead. And so the King of tremendous majesty, seated on the throne of justice and mercy, and ready to dispense everlasting life or everlasting woe.

And there you have it, perhaps not quite in a nutshell, but beautifully stated nonetheless. The funeral Mass is not intended for the pleasure of the mourners, nor is it meant to transmit “good feelings” to one and all. What these people really want is a wake, when they can sit around and laugh and cry and reminisce about the good times and the bad. The wake is for the living; the primary beneficiary of the Mass is, or at least should be, the deceased, with the living to receive comfort from it in a secondary way, the hope and faith in that justice and mercy of which Fr. Hurley speaks.

The Catholic funeral Mass signifies the most intimate of connections between man and Creator. It is a plea for compassion and understanding. It is the priest, on behalf of the deceased, throwing himself at the mercy of God. It really is, when you think about it, a beautiful thing, one that never fails to stir me when I do think about it. For when we die we go to our particular judgment, our chance to meet with God, and to receive sentence. To think that this beautiful Mass, with the prayers for the dead offered by the priest and people, exists to mediate for us with God, is a comforting thought indeed.

Instead, the feel-good funeral, understandable though it may be, winds up a true disservice to the dead. As Hitchcock puts it,

Mother Teresa herself would have insisted that she could have done a lot more. It is one of the characteristics of saints that they are acutely aware of their sins, of how completely they depend on God's mercy, of how little they "deserve" at God's hands. But modern sensibilities have subtly changed hope -- that a merciful God will grant me salvation -- into arrogant certainty…

Even if the eulogist is aware of the deceased's perhaps considerable faults, he dare not hint that the dearly departed is not in heaven. An unfortunate result is that it forestalls people's praying for the dead, which used to be regarded as a solemn duty.

What we ultimately wind up with are people who mean well, who think they’re doing the right thing, without realizing that the Church has a reason for everything it teaches. That rationale doesn’t come lightly, as if someone woke up one morning and for no apparent reason decided, “I think I’ll ban eulogies today.” It usually comes out of considerable thought, and for good reason. But these do-gooders put an emphasis on feeling, rather than reason. They rely on those feelings to dictate their actions, and while those actions may be innocent enough, at the very least they minimize the amount of good that can be done.

Oh, by the way, if you've never read the Dias Irae, or if you'd like to look it over again, here' s the complete text.


And now let us pray for the dead:

Réquiem ætérnam dona eis Dómine; et lux perpétua lúceat eis. Requiéscant in pace. Amen.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

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