Bereavement Supplement 2016

Prayers Assist the Dead on Path to Heaven

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Laure Cressaty, at left, prays in front of a niche in which her husband Joseph Cressaty’s cremated remains are interned at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, N.Y. (Photos: Catholic News Service/Gregory A. Shemitz)

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Praying for the dead might not make sense to nonbelievers but for Catholics it is part and parcel of the faith tradition, rooted in Old Testament readings and supported by the Catechism and the church’s funeral liturgy.

“Our faith teaches us to pray for the dead,” said Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, in a 2015 All Saints’ Day reflection, stressing that although people hope that those who die are with God and the angels and saints, it is not necessarily a guarantee.

“Scripture teaches that all of the dead shall be raised. However, only the just are destined for the kingdom of God,” the bishop wrote.

Biblical Reference Point

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the clearest Bible reference about prayers for the dead is from the Second Book of Maccabees. When soldiers were preparing the bodies of their slain comrades for burial they discovered they were wearing amulets taken a pagan temple which violated the law of Deuteronomy so they prayed that God would forgive the sin these men had committed.

The New Testament echoes this notion in the second letter of Timothy when Paul prays for someone who died named Onesiphorus saying: “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also has something to say about prayers for the dead stating: “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.” (No. 1030)

Deacon Richard Waldmann presides at a committal service at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, N.Y. Praying for the dead might not make sense to nonbelievers but for Catholics it is part and parcel of the faith tradition.
Deacon Richard Waldmann presides at a committal service at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, N.Y. Praying for the dead might not make sense to nonbelievers but for Catholics it is part and parcel of the faith tradition.

Places of Prayer

The Roman catacombs where early Christians were buried also were places of prayer.

Today, prayers for the dead begin at the moment of death, often when family members are gathered around the bedside of the person who has died.

Prayers for death and grieving are among the “Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers,” published in 2007 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops which includes prayers immediately after death, prayers for mourners, prayers at graveside and a more general prayer for the dead.

Of course these prayers continue in the funeral liturgy, which is the “central liturgical celebration of the Christian community for the deceased,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ overview of Catholic funeral rites: www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/ bereavement-and-funerals/overview-of-catholic-funeral-rites.cfm.

The funeral liturgy, the website points out, is “an act of worship, and not merely an expression of grief.”

It is a time when the church gathers with the family and friends of the deceased “to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the paschal mystery,” it adds.

Father Ryszard Ficek presides at a funeral Mass for Rosaria Lombardo at St. William the Abbot Church in Seaford, N.Y.
Father Ryszard Ficek presides at a funeral Mass for Rosaria Lombardo at St. William the Abbot Church in Seaford, N.Y.

Expression of Hope

The prayers in the funeral liturgy express hope that God will free the person who has died from any burden of sin and prepare a place for him or her in heaven.

“The funeral rite is a prayer for the dead, designated by the church as the liturgy of Christian burial,” wrote Bishop Braxton in his reflection.

He noted that many parishes “regularly disregard” the emphasis of this liturgy by printing funeral programs which say: “the ‘Mass of the Resurrection: A Celebration of Life,’ even though the person has obviously not yet been raised from the dead.”

According to the Catechism, most Catholics who don’t merit hell still need purification before entering heaven and pass through a state when they die that the church describes as purgatory.

In a question and answer page on Busted Halo, a Paulist-run website at http://bustedhalo.com, Paulist Father Joe Scott said praying for the dead has “further origins in our belief in the communion of saints.”

Spiritual Support

The priest, an associate pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Community in Los Angeles, Calif., added that living members of this communion can “assist each other in faith by prayers and other forms of spiritual support.”

“Christians who have died continue to be members of the communion of saints,” he wrote. “We believe that we can assist them by our prayers, and they can assist us by theirs.”

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