Praying for the dead

Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, Nov. 2

(Selected from the many options for this day) Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 23:1-3a,3b-4,5,6; Romans 5:5-11 or Romans 6:3-9; John 6:37-40

During my years as a Protestant pastor, I thought praying for departed Christians was a waste of time. I acknowledged that many Christians died without completing their journey toward sainthood. It was obvious that if God were to admit into heaven such “unfinished” Christians, heaven would quickly become all too hellish.

I assumed that God would miraculously remedy all such character deficiencies instantaneously at some point between death and the final resurrection. I proposed that if God did anything less, salvation would not be a work of God’s grace, but a human work — which possibility Scripture clearly condemned.

Of course, nothing precludes God from instantaneously remedying our spiritual deficiencies. (Perhaps he did so for the thief on the cross.) Also, because present measurements of time are not relevant to the age to come or to the intermediate state between death and resurrection, it is unwise to debate the length of time required for the soul to complete its journey toward spiritual perfection.

Finally, if one must “work out one’s own salvation” in this life (and we do!) and if this does not invalidate salvation by God’s grace alone (and it doesn’t!), then why would continuing to work out our salvation in the intermediate state invalidate salvation by grace alone?

Our annual celebration of All Souls, when we remember our departed loved ones, presupposes three realities: 1) all Christians who die in faith will experience eternal life; 2) without holiness no one will see the Lord; and 3) some Christians die without having achieved the holiness required to enter heaven. This week’s Gospel reading from John 6:37-40 drives home the first reality: no Christian who dies in faith will fail to experience eternal life.

Jesus had just declared, “I am the bread of life, he who comes to me shall not hunger.” Even though his Jewish hearers had seen him face to face, they refused to believe. Far from fearing failure in his mission, Jesus confidently declared, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.”

Then Jesus uttered what grammarians call a litotes, a figure of speech in which something is affirmed by negating its contrary: “He who comes to me I will not cast out.” In other words: “Whoever comes to me I will certainly preserve.”

Jesus further emphasized this reality by affirming that God’s will, “the will of him who sent me,” is “that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day.” Just in case his hearers still didn’t catch his drift, Jesus affirmed his meaning a third time: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Note the key words: whoever, nothing, and everyone.

It must be emphasized that when the New Testament speaks of “eternal life,” it is referring to far more than mere unending existence. To experience “eternal life” means to enjoy the quality of life appropriate to the age to come. Clearly, only saints who have completely overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil can experience the quality of life that perfectly corresponds to heavenly realities.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church nicely summarizes the church’s theology of purgatory: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (Catechism 1030).

The long and short of all this is that it is a wise and charitable act to pray for our departed loved ones. This Sunday, make sure to give a hearty “Amen!” when your priest prays over the gifts: “All-powerful Father, may this sacrifice wash away the sins of our departed brothers and sisters in the blood of Christ. You cleansed them in the waters of baptism. In your loving mercy grant them pardon and peace.”

Father Douglas Grandon is parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish in Moline and assistant director of catechetics for the Diocese of Peoria.

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