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A Leaven In The World . . . The Catholic Devotion Of Praying For The Dead

November 12, 2013 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By FR. KEVIN M. CUSICK

Visitors to Rome and to its catacombs may learn of the Roman custom of visiting the tombs of departed family members. The Roman family members would take a picnic meal out to the Appian Way, for example, as the dead were buried outside the official city limits. During the meal they would perform a ritual of pouring wine into holes carved into the tomb as a way of sharing the goods of this life to help the dead on their way to eternal life.

This “refrigerium,” or refreshment of the deceased, has made its way into our prayer of the Roman canon of the Mass, where we beg God on behalf of the dead that they may be granted “refreshment, light, and peace” in the next world.

The Christian “cult of the dead” or devotion to prayer for the souls of the faithful departed certainly has roots in the Roman culture with its practice of the “refrigerium,” but in Christ that has come to mean a completely new reality: the suffrage of prayers as effective for the mercy of God upon those who may await purification so as to enter eternal beatitude. This life of prayer in Christ, particularly through the sacrifice of the Mass, is the spiritually powerful means of interceding through Christ’s salvific and ongoing divine intercession with the Father for us and all mankind.

The ongoing nature of the spiritual wound of grieving for a deceased family member requires an also ongoing process of dealing with grief. The prayers of the Church in Christ for the dead, especially in the month of November each year, are a great help to all of those who bear this burden of suffering the loss of family members or other loved ones.

We enjoy in Christ a new kind of life with those who have gone before us to the next life. We call this Communion with the dead:

“ ‘In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and “because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” she offers her suffrages for them’ [Lumen Gentium, n. 50]. Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 958).

The foundation for our belief in the power of prayer for the dead is founded as all other aspects of our faith upon the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in whom we too are called to find a share in the life of God.

“Belief in the resurrection of the dead has been an essential element of the Christian faith from its beginnings. ‘The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live’ [Tertullian].

“ ‘How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. . . . But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’ [1 Cor. 15:12-14]” (CCC, n. 991).

St. Paul makes clear that if there is no hope of resurrection for all of humanity in Christ and because of Christ, then there likewise must be no hope that news of His Resurrection was indeed true eyewitness testimony. The point, of course, is that Christ indeed was raised and thus because God has the power to grant that life to all human nature in which He truly shared.

Because of this, then, we truly have a hope because of God’s infinite mercy that He will grant such forgiveness as is necessary to give the dead a share in His life. Scriptural teachings on the purgation that some may have to undergo before attaining eternal beatitude gives us a role through penance and prayer to join with Christ in His role of intercession as the Son of God and Savior.

Our practice of praying for the dead, whether in November each year or at Masses of Christian Burial, is based upon Scripture and Tradition.

“This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: ‘Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.’ 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. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

“ ‘Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them’ [St. John Chrysostom]” (CCC, n. 1032).

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Grant them eternal life, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.

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(Follow Fr. Cusick on Facebook at Reverendo Padre-Kevin Michael Cusick on Twitter @MCITL.)

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