All Souls Day: Why should we pray for the dead?

| Father Michael Van Sloun For The Catholic Spirit | November 1, 2010 | 2 Comments

Poor souls in purgatory are portrayed on a window at St. Thomas the Apostle in Corcoran. Photo courtesy of Father Michael Van Sloun

Nov. 2 is All Souls Day, the special day in the liturgical year set aside to pray for the dead.

But why pray for the dead? There is no need to pray for those who have died and gone straight to heaven.

This feast presumes that some who die are imperfectly purified of their sinfulness, and while assured of the eventual benefits of eternal life, are barred from immediate access to heaven.

Instead, they are held in an unknown place where they are cleansed of their sinfulness, and after an indeterminate time, are finally released to take their place at God’s throne.

For centuries, Catholics have said that purgatory is the intermediate place of temporary punishment and purification, and that the length of time spent there is based upon the number and seriousness of one’s sins. The church defined this doctrine at the Second Council of Lyons (1274), the Council of Florence (1439) and the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

Purgatory in catechism

The term, purgatory, still exists in church literature today (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1030-1032) despite the fact that it is not mentioned in the Bible. Two New Testament verses allude to a cleansing fire (1 Corinthians 3:15 and 1 Peter 1:7), and they have served as the basis for the concept of purgatory, which evolved from the fifth to 13th

Today, the church is more in­clin­ed to speak about “The Final Puri­fi­cation” (Documents of Vatican II, The Dogmatic Consti­tu­tion of the Church, Lumen Gen­tium, No. 51).

A key biblical basis for praying for the dead is found in the Old Testa­ment (2 Maccabees 12:38-46). This story recounts how Judas Macca­beus, a great Jewish general of the second century before Christ, successfully led his army into battle. A day after hostilities ceased, the troops who survived returned to the battlefield to gather up the bodies to give them a respectful burial.

To their horror, they found amu­lets, protective charm necklaces sacred to the idols of Jamnia, local pagan gods, tied around their necks and hidden under their armor. This was a grave sin against the First Com­mandment’s law against idols (Exodus 20:2-6; Deuteronomy 5:7-9). Immediately “they turned to supplication and prayed that the sinful deed might be blotted out” (2 Mac­cabees 12:42).

Survivors offered sacrifice

In fact, the survivors, who placed an extraordinarily high premium on faithful observance of the Mosaic Law, were so aghast at this sin that they feared their fallen comrades would be consigned to everlasting punishment. As firm believers in the resurrection, they were confident their prayers could help atone for the sins of the dead, release them from the punishment they deserved, and speed them on their journey to eternal light and peace.

Conse­quent­ly, the survivors took up a collection and sent it to Jerusalem so an expiatory sacrifice could be offered in the temple.

Consistent with this ancient Jew­ish practice, the Catholic Church has taught for centuries that our prayers serve as an aid to those who have died, and the premier prayer to offer for their intention is the Eucharist, the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The church also recommends almsgiving, indulgences and other works of penance for the deceased (Catechism, No. 1032).

On this All Souls Day or any time throughout the month of Novem­ber, please consider reserving some time to pray for the dead.

Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Stephen in Anoka.

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