By Fr. James Goeke, SJ
Dec. 31, 2019 - One long-held tradition in the Catholic Church is praying for the deceased. Having a Mass offered in memory of a deceased loved one is considered an even more powerful prayer. As a matter of fact, when a Jesuit of the USA Central and Southern Province dies, every member of the province is obliged to offer one Mass for the deceased.
Why is this necessary? We are saved by the passion, death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ. Recall our prayer at a funeral Mass: “Almighty God and Father, it is our certain faith that your Son, who died on the cross, was raised from the dead, the firstfruits of all who have fallen asleep. Grant that through this mystery your servant who has gone to her rest in Christ may share in the joy of his resurrection.” It is by Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that we are saved, so do the dead really need our prayers after they die?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites both Scripture and the Church Fathers to support this practice. When responding to the Pharisees, Jesus said, “Whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come.” (Mark 3:29) St. Gregory the Great wrote, “From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.”
So, if we are to accept that they do need our prayers, how do they need our prayers? The Catechism teaches, “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.”
One way of thinking about this is to remember what Scripture says: “God is love,” and God wants us to receive his love fully.
The Catechism teaches, “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.”
We might think of purification as the process of removing all the obstacles that prevent the deceased person from fully receiving God’s love. We all know the poverty of not being able to accept a loving gesture when it is offered. I frequently miss out on love offered because I don’t want to be indebted to another person, or because I don’t think I’m deserving of that love. It is hurtful to the person trying to bless me with their love.
I’d like to offer another reason to pray for our deceased loved ones. In the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer at a funeral Mass, the priest prays, “In him the hope of resurrection has dawned, that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come. Indeed, for your faithful, Lord, life is changed, not ended.” That’s true of our relationships with our loved ones, too; our relationships with them are “changed, not ended.” Even after death, we still want to love them and to let them continue to love and be a blessing to us. By thinking of them and praying for them and remembering the ways they have shown us God’s love, we continue to be blessed by them.
Father Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit of the late 20th century who blended the prayer experiences of western Catholicism and eastern religious traditions, introduced a way to contemplate the Sorrowful and Joyful Mysteries of our lives. He first invites us to recall important moments of great joy. We are asked to re-experience them in our imagination and let that joy be deepened and renewed. He then invites us to revisit painful, sorrowful moments in our lives and to look for the hand of God amid sorrow. In the process, we can discover how God accompanied us and led us from pain and suffering to the joy of resurrection.
I love to pray in this way as I contemplate my loved ones who have died. One blessed memory of my mom was the time I borrowed her car one evening a few months before she died, only to forget to open the garage door before backing into it. She was not pleased! She also was quick to forgive and to reassure me of her love. This remains a blessed memory of love and forgiveness.
I think back to when my father was diagnosed with cancer, and he allowed me to accompany him to an appointment with the surgeon who was explaining his care plan. The surgeon asked, “Would you like to hear your son’s opinion?” My dad responded, “I don’t typically invite my children to be involved in my medical affairs, but with Jim I’ll make an exception.”
I was deeply touched by his words and decision to let me be there with him. A subsequent moment of my accompaniment of him took place the day before he died, as he was making his wishes known to the doctors regarding the level of extraordinary care he desired. A blessed memory of being able to be there for him in his time of need.
I recently watched the film Mary Poppins Returns — a delightful experience! Without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, the Banks family is in crisis. The movie begins shortly after the death of the young Mrs. Banks, mother to Annabel, John and Georgie and wife to Michael; Michael and their three young children miss her profoundly. In addition to their grief, they have another problem: Michael’s wife was the one who kept household affairs in order. (Hence, the need for the return of Mary Poppins.) One day, as the four of them are feeling particular grief, Mary Poppins sings “The Place Where Lost Things Go” to the children to comfort them:
A nice secular reminder that relationships with our loved ones never end, and that our loved ones can continue to be a blessing to us long after they’ve died.
So, pray for your loved ones. God only knows how our prayers help them, but the Church assures us that we shouldn’t doubt that our prayers and offerings will bring them some form of help and consolation. We all want to be remembered and cherished, don’t we? And in praying for and remembering your loved ones, let those special memories continue to enrich your life, too!
Fr. Jim Goeke serves as chaplain and math teacher at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo. He is also superior of the Jesuit community.