The “works of mercy” are an age old list of those deeds — both spiritual and corporal — which especially constitute our reflection of God’s mercy in the world. They are presented to us anew in the Formulas of Catholic Doctrine of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2005). The seventh spiritual work of mercy is “pray for the living and the dead”. While we all experience the need for prayer among the living, sometimes we can forget the need of prayer among those who have died and are in Purgatory still awaiting the fullness of eternal life with God. Does the Church still maintain the teaching of Purgatory? Can our prayers really help?
The Second Vatican Council and Praying for the Souls in Purgatory
The 50th anniversary of Lumen Gentium (1964), the Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” was Friday, November 21, 2014, the Feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple. This central document to the work of the Second Vatican Council dedicates Chapter VII (#48-51) to the “Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and its Union with the Church in Heaven.” The chapter explains how the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ here on earth is also in union with the members of the Church in Heaven and even those members of the Church undergoing the purification of Purgatory. Lumen Gentium #49 reminds us of the Church’s perennial teaching when it says:
Until the Lord shall come in His majesty, and all the angels with Him (266: Cf. Mt. 25:31.) and death being destroyed, all things are subject to Him,(267: Cf. 1 Cor. 15:26-27.)
- some of His disciples are exiles on earth,
- some having died are purified, and
- others are in glory beholding “clearly God Himself triune and one, as He is”;(CONC. FLOR.,Decretum pro Graecis: DENZ. 693 (1305).)
but all in various ways and degrees are in communion in the same charity of God and neighbor and all sing the same hymn of glory to our God. For all who are in Christ, having His Spirit, form one Church and cleave together in Him.(268: Cf. Eph. 4:16.)
Remembering the piety of the early Christians, the document paints a vivid picture of the union of Christians with their beloved dead in #50:
Fully conscious of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead,(6*Cf. Plurimae inscriptiones in Catacumbis romanis.) and “because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins“,(273: 2 Macc. 12:46.) also offers suffrages for them.
Finally, in #51 of Lumen Gentium we are directly encouraged to maintain the great work of mercy and union with those in Purgatory:
This Sacred Council accepts with great devotion this venerable faith of our ancestors regarding this vital fellowship with our brethren who are in heavenly glory or who having died are still being purified; and it proposes again the decrees of the Second Council of Nicea,(20*: Cf. CONC. NIC. II, Act VII: DENZ. 302 (600).) the Council of Florence (21*: Cf. CONC. FLOR., Decretum pro Graecis: DENZ. 693 (1304).) and the Council of Trent.(22*: Cf. CONC. TRID., Decr. De invocatione, veneratione et reliquiis Sanctorum et sacris imaginibus: DENZ. 984-988 (1821-1824); Decr. De Purgatorio: DENZ. 983 (1820); Decr. De iustificatione, can. 30: DENZ. 840 (1580).)
Praying for the Dead: November’s Work of Mercy
In the portion of the Appendix on the Common Prayers in the Compendium, we find as “standard issue” common prayers the following:
|Eternal RestEternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace. Amen.
|Requiem ÆternamRéquiem ætérnam dona eis, Dómine,
et lux perpétua lúceat eis.
Requiéscant in pace. Amen.
By drawing near to this work of mercy, we arrive at the source of inspiration for many common features in Western culture: Mozart’s Requiem is for the full liturgy for the dead, built up from this foundational prayer. Similarly, “R.I.P.” on tombstones does mean “rest in peace” but the base text was the ecclesial Latin one (Requiéscant in pace) not the English translation. These features, of course, speak to the faith of the Church and the common belief that the souls of the dead needed prayers in order to pass through the judgment and be granted the perpetual light of Heaven.
A beautiful eastern prayer included also in the Compendium opens up the sentiments of prayer even more widely:
Byzantine Prayer for the Deceased
God of the spirits and of all flesh, who have trampled death and annihilated the devil and given life to your world, may you yourself, O Lord, grant to the soul of your deceased servant N. rest in a place of light, a verdant place, a place of freshness, from where suffering, pain and cries are far removed. Do You, O good and compassionate God forgive every fault committed by him in word, work or thought because there is no man who lives and does not sin. You alone are without sin and your justice is justice throughout the ages and your word is truth. Since you, O Christ our God, are the resurrection, the life and the repose of your deceased servant N., we give you glory together with your un-begotten Father and your most holy, good and life-creating Spirit, now and always and forever and ever.
Things You Can Do in November and Throughout the Year
While the month of November especially calls us together to pray for the dead on the Commemoration of All Souls, November 2, we can carry out this work of mercy in small ways throughout the year. Listed below are some ways to pray for the dead:
- To visit a cemetery and pray the rosary there for the faithful departed—especially those who have no one to pray for them;
- To make the Sign of the Cross and pause to pray “May the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace” when driving by a cemetery (there might be one on your daily commute!);
- To pray for the deceased members of our own families by name;
- To make an offering for a mass to celebrated for these souls;
- To take a moment of prayer to reflect on the state of my own soul in view of the judgment at death…what would I not wish to have put off? Are there injustices, angers, unresolved tensions in my family or among my acquaintances that I should resolve? Are there habits or sins in my life that I would like to be free of before I die?
November and Advent
The liturgical calendar of the year is very gentle and very profound. We have this season of nature’s loss to turn our thoughts to death and to those who have proceeded us, to the Last Things and Final Judgment. Daily we have the Hail Mary which ends, “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”—every Hail Mary we have ever prayed will be called upon at the hour of our death. And then, quite soon, we will begin Advent which calls us to move from longing and hoping to the beginning of our Redemption.
What peace offerings…What purifications in our lives…What gifts might we prepare to bring to the cradle of the Infant King at Christmas? How will Our Lady encourage us and invite us close to see her baby…as she has encouraged us and invited us to trust in His grace, to pray for others, to ask for her aid?
For, in the mystery of the economy of salvation, our sacrifices to honor Him and to love Him become the signs of our unity with Him, and they will be the merits by which He may recognize us on the day of our judgment, and hopefully say: “good and faithful servant, come share the joy of your master.”
May Our Lady intercede to grant us this grace.
Text from a “Good Nights” given following Evening Prayer at the Juniorate Immaculate Heart of Mary in Washington, DC on November 8, 2014