For years Hollywood has portrayed purgatory as something it is not. Instead of presenting it as a process of purification before heaven, movies like What Dreams May Come and Gabriel depict purgatory as a place in-between heaven and hell. But as Catholics we believe that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation…after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC, 1030).
Confirmed by the Council of Lyons, the Council of Florence, and then again by the Council of Trent, our belief in purgatory and the practice of praying for the dead has been around for thousands of years.
We read in the Old Testament that “[Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc. 12:46). And in the New Testament, we learn of Saint Paul offering petitions for a man who has died. “May the Lord grant him to find mercy” (2 Tim. 1:18), he prays for Onesiphrous.
Perhaps one of the most moving stories of praying for the dead is found in the Martyrdom of Perpetua, written in 203AD. Saint Perpetua, imprisoned for her faith, describes a vision of her brother:
“I beheld Dinocarates coming forth from a dark place, where were many others also; being both hot and thirsty, his raiment foul, his color pale; and the wound on his face which he had when he died…[and] in the same place where Dinocrates was, a font full of water, having its edge higher than the boy’s stature…Dinocrates stretched up as though to drink…yet for the height of the edge he might not.”
Startled by this tragic scene, Saint Perpetua awakes and begins to pray for her brother, “day and night with groans and tears,” until she is shown another vision.
“I saw the place which I had before seen, and Dinocrates clean of body, finely clothed, in comfort; and the font I had seen before, the edge of it being drawn to the boy’s navel; and he drew water…And being satisfied he departed away from the water and began to play as children will, joyfully.”
Not surprisingly, Saint Perpetua, who has been honored by the Church since her martyrdom, had a profound impact on the early Church fathers, the desert mystics and those who sought to clarify the Church’s teaching on praying for the dead.
In the Order of Christian Funerals, the Church reveals that we pray for the dead because death is not the end of our existence. Although our time as members of the Church Militant on earth has come to a close, we are still members of the Communion of Saints. If we are in a perfect state of grace when we die, we join the Church Triumphant in heaven. If not, we join those members of the Body of Christ now being purified in purgatory.
But why would one need to be purified before entering heaven?
Even though we may die having expressed our sorrow and receiving forgiveness, many of us do not die with a perfect love of God. Very often we are still attached to the earthly things we love. Before approaching the throne of grace, we must be cleansed of these things. Thus we pray for the dead, asking the Lord to quicken this process of purification. We commend the souls of the faithful departed to God, and pray that they may be assisted on their way to heaven. As we read in the Catechism: “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” (CCC, 1032).
In addition to praying for the dead on November 2, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, members of the Order of Preachers make a habit of praying for the dead throughout the year. Before dinner everyday we chant Psalm 130 and remember the Dominicans who have died on that day throughout history. Every week, and especially on September 5, we pray for our deceased friends and benefactors. On February 7, we remember our deceased parents, and on November 8, we offer our prayers for all our Dominican brothers and sisters who have died.
In your charity, please join us in making time to pray for the dead, an act of mercy with eternal consequences.