Why Pray for the Dead?

Why Pray for the Dead?

Ancient Israel had no understanding of immortality. Death was total and Israel knew of no activity that survived it (Isaiah 26:14).

The wisdom writings and Psalms promised that those who served the Lord would prosper and receive their reward in this life (Psalms 01:01-03). The story of Job was devoted to debunking that myth (Job26:05-06). Job was a “blameless man” who lost everything. For Job and Israel life ended with the grave. Isaiah did offer some hope that God “will destroy death” (25:8).

Israel’s Growing Hope

However during the great persecution period under Antiochus IV, the apocalyptic book of Daniel (167 BCE) expresses the first clear belief in immortality: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace (Daniel12:02). This was a period when many Jews suffered martyrdom. In order to believe in God’s justice and in his promises that Israel would be restored, Divine providence revealed the doctrine of reward and punishment beyond this life in the hereafter.

During the Maccabean Wars there is the story of a woman with seven sons who all died as martyrs (2 Maccabees 07). They were offered freedom if they renounced their faith. They refused to do so after being tortured. Each son is permitted some final words before death. Four referred to the resurrection.  The mother expressed her faith by saying that the God who created life in the womb can restore the dead body to life.

One of the most controversial Bible passages of the Reformation not only dealing with immortality but also with the efficaciousness of prayers for the dead is found in 2 Maccabees 12:43-46. After one of the battles in the War, Judas Maccabeus “then took up a collection among the soldiers which amounted to 2000 silver drachamas which he then sent up to Jerusalem for an expiatory sacrifice...for if were not expecting the fallen to rise again it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who have gone to rest in Godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they may be freed from their sins.”

One of the last writings of the Septuagint clearly presents the doctrine of immortality. “The souls of the just are in the hand of God and no torment shall touch them...they are at peace...but the wicked shall receive a punishment (Wisdom03:01,03, 10).

Some churches teach that both the body and soul die at physical death and await the resurrection. The Church teaches that the soul is immortal and lives on. See Luke23:42-43; 2 Corinthians 05:06-08; Philippians01:21; Revelations 06:09; 20:04.

Jesus’ Message of Eternal Life

Jesus taught this: “I am the resurrection and the life; and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26). Clearly He meant the soul will never die! From the New Testament we know that there was an ongoing debate between the Sadducees who denied immortality, and the Pharisees who believed in eternal life (Acts 23:06-08). The first century houses of Hillel and Shammai agreed about the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked, but disagreed on those in between. Shammai said they will undergo purgatorial fire until purified. Hillel said God in his mercy will forgive them. The Church and Orthodox Judaism followed Shammai. The Hassidim to this day pray for the repose of the souls of their dead using the Yizkor on Yom Kippur and the elmale’ rahamim for a deceased relative.

Church Fathers

St. Cyril (AD 315) said: “We offer prayers up for those who have fallen asleep though they may be sinners...and we thereby propitiate the benevolent God for them and ourselves.” Aren’t we all sinners (Romans 03:23)? Augustine says by the prayers of the Holy Church and the salvific sacrifice (Mass), the dead are aided.  Gregory the Great (540-604) promulgated the doctrine of purgation of sin after death based on the teachings of Cyril and Augustine.

The Gospel speaks of “certain sins not forgiven in this age or the age to come” (Matthew12:32). There are unpardonable sins! For the forgivable sins this purifying process takes place (1 Corinthians 03:15; 1Peter 01:07). Time is not involved. It may happen instantly. The soul becomes very conscious of its shortcomings and the pain felt is its strong desire to be with the Lord. We are purged of our residual selfishness.

Pope Benedict XVI, while a Cardinal wrote: “We should not understand purgatory as an other-worldly concentration camp where people suffer punishments which have been dictated more or less arbitrarily. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation. It does not replace grace by works but allows the former to ahieve its full victory precisely as grace.”

It is agreed that there were serious abuses. However, they were corrected by the Council of Trent. Nevertheless the Reformers discarded Scripture and a tradition that had been part of the faith from the earliest days of the Church. This doctrine is inextricably linked to the Apostles’ Creed, the earliest of all creeds, which states: “I believe in the communion of saints.” This was understood as our participation in the blessings of salvation and in the fellowship of God’s holy people which means a communion between the heavenly Church and the earthly Church. This was defined as an exchange of graces and blessings between individuals on earth and the saints in heaven and the souls in purgatory.

The Teachings of Vatican II

“Very much aware of the bonds linking 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. “Because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead so that they may be loosed from sins” (2Maccabees 12:45), she has also offered prayers for them” (ChurchVII; paragraph 50).

In every Mass there are prayers for the departed. These or similar words are offered up in the four Eucharistic prayers. “Lord remember those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, especially for those we now pray (name inserted). May these, and all who sleep in Christ, find in your presence light, happiness and peace” (First Eucharistic prayers).

In union with the earliest Christians we pray with confidence: “Eternal rest grant unto them, Oh Lord. And let perpetual light shine on them. And may their souls and the souls of the departed through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

"Why Pray for the Dead?" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

No comments:

Post a Comment