Why pray for the dead?

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A protestant friend of mine remarked that he was surprised that Catholic parents allow their children to participate in Halloween. Ugh… “Get a life!” I felt like saying. This was the second time that day that someone had mentioned this to me. The first time was by a parishioner who was a convert and mentioned that she new of a Catholic family that boycotted Halloween and held an alternative party that did not focus on the occult.

I don’t think we need to be that fundamentalist in our approach. If we tried to avoid everything in the world that had pagan origins… there would be very little left in the world.  What some would say were the origins of Halloween, festivals of Autumn and of the dead were “baptised” by the Christian communities to reflect their new belief systems.  Halloween went from being about the damned to being a commemoration of the All Hallows Eve… remembering our sisters and brothers who are part of the Communion of Saints.

The Communion of Saints is itself a stumbling block for some people. They don’t understand it.  Some are also confused by our praying for the dead. Their fate is sealed at the time of death, is it not?

We believe that all of us who were baptised in Christ form the Body of Christ… and this membership in Christ is eternal.  We are forever interconnected. When we celebrate the Eucharist we have a glimpse of this Communion we share with Christ and all the members of His Body. We are present to one another in a unique way.  A traditional Byzantine image is that during the liturgy we transported into heaven at the throne of God and join the Angels and Saints… our deceased brothers and sisters in worship of the one God.  It makes sense then, that in times of trial, we would ask these friends of ours, the saints to pray for us.  We ask people here on earth to pray for us. Why can’t we ask those in heaven to pray for us?

This leads to the topic of praying for those who have died, especially during this month of November. What are we doing when we pray for them?  They are in heaven or in hell, right? Are we trying to change God’s mind? What happens when people die and meet God is a mystery. We do know that we are accountable for the way we have lived our life. We also know that God is Love. God’s mercy knows no bounds. When we pray for someone who has died we are accompanying them with our love. We offer our prayers to support them whatever they may be experiencing and however they need our prayer. Prayering for the dead is a form of loving presence to them.

One of the notions that we have in relation to this process of coming into God’s presence is that of Purgatory. People often think of it as a form of detention centre that people go to before they can be admitted into heaven. In fact it is not a “punitive” concept but rather, true to its name, one of deep cleansing.

One of my teachers, Bob Wicks, explained it in similar words to these. When we die, we carry with us all of the accomplishments, honours, victories, qualities we feel earn us a place in heaven.  We come before the pearly gates our hands full… of ourselves.  God patiently looks upon us with love and waits… God waits until we begin to get tired and one by one put down all the things we are carrying. Then, when our hands are empty can God embrace us and welcome us home. That’s what purgatory is about.

During this month of November let us pray for our deceased family and friends. May they have the grace to open their arms to God’s loving embrace.

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