REQUIESCANT IN PACE:

PRAYING FOR THE DEAD, PART 1

 

“So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed [by those who had died] might be wholly blotted out...Judas [Maccabeus] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of 2000 drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this, he acted very well and honorably, taking into account the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:41-45).

 

            The Catholic practice of praying for the dead has a long history that predates Christianity, as seen in the passage from 2 Maccabees above. Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection transforms our understanding of death, and so also the practice of praying for the dead. This month of the feasts of All Saints and All Souls provides a timely opportunity for us to reflect on what we as Catholics believe about death and about praying for the dead today.

 

            Science teaches us that death is natural. As human beings, we are living organisms, and, like every living organism, our vital biological functions eventually cease, resulting in the end of life that we call death. Yet human experience reveals a supernatural hunger for a life which does not end. Faith teaches us that this hunger comes from the seed of eternity planted in our flesh by God at the very moment of our conception. We call this seed at the heart of every human person the soul, the immortal, spiritual principle that forms our innermost being and our direct link with God, who creates us in his own spiritual likeness. Our soul expresses itself materially in and through our body, and the two intrinsically form together each unique human person.

 

Contrary to our God-given nature as embodied souls destined to live with God forever, eventually the vital biological functions of our bodies cease, causing a breakdown in the human person, a separation of our mortal bodies and immortal souls that results in the spiritual phenomenon of death. This breakdown is the bitter fruit of sin, as St. Paul tells us: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). When the first human beings chose sin rather than God, they caused a rift in nature, a spiritual earthquake that we call the fall. The consequence of this original sin is the breakdown of the natural order and the frustration of our eternal destiny, experienced as suffering and death, leaving us forever broken and unfulfilled as human beings and separated from God.

 

Tune in next week for Part 2 of Requiescant in Pace: Praying for the Dead.

 

 

Fr. Marc 


 

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Outside of hurricane season, people looking for news coverage about anything except politics these days have pretty much adopted a lost cause.  The Democrats, the Republicans, and the president chase each other around in a circle, like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, only it isn’t funny.  Hours of television and radio shows, reams of newspapers and magazines, and countless blogs and websites bombard us daily with endless sound bites and analysis.  This side says this, this side says that.  This politician promises this, this politician promises that.  And so it goes, the politico’s waging a war of words for the heart of our nation, and here we are in the middle of it all asking ourselves, who really speaks for the people?  Who, if anyone, can claim that authority?

 

I will not even attempt to answer that, but I offer this example because our gospel reading raises a similar question.  In a world of many different, often competing, religions, who really speaks for God?  Who, if anyone, has that authority?  If our gospel reading is true, WE do, not by nature or by our own merits, but as an amazing gift and grave responsibility.

 

            Initially, today’s gospel seems rather superficial.  The first half reads like a student handbook, laying out a simple plan for discipline in the early Church.  But the second half digs deeper. Discipline requires authority.  All authority throughout the Scriptures ultimately comes from God, from the very beginning, when he disciplines Adam and Eve, through the Old Testament, as he repeatedly chastises his faithless People, right up to Christ himself, who, though completely free of sin, obeys the Father’s will and bears “the chastisement of us all” by becoming flesh and dying on the cross.  All authority in heaven and on earth comes from God. 

But, because of his obedient self-sacrifice, the Father gives all authority in heaven and on earth to his Son.  And, in today’s gospel, Jesus gives this authority to the community of disciples, the Church.

 

            Jesus gives the Church the authority to bind and loose, in this world and the next.  But that isn’t all.  He promises us that whenever the community agrees about ANYTHING for which we are to pray, it will be granted to us by our Father.  Jesus gives us the authority of God, all power in heaven and on earth, and he guarantees this promise by his continued presence with us through all time.  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” he tells us, and he means it.

 

            Some of us may doubt this promise.  We can all probably think of an example of when we prayed desperately for something, and it didn’t happen.  We started prayer chains, offered Mass intentions, lit votive candles, prayed rosary after rosary on our knees, pleading with God, but still did not get what we wanted.  And maybe, for a while, we gave up on God. But remember Jesus’ words, “Where two or three are gathered IN MY NAME.”  Only when we gather in HIS NAME do we exercise his authority, and to gather in his name and exercise his authority means surrendering to the Father’s will, not trying to bend the Father to ours.

 

 

 

Think of the night before Jesus died.  He, too, questioned the Father.  Jesus struggled to see how the cross could accomplish God’s plan.  “Father, let this cup pass from me,” he begged, so intensely that he sweat blood.  But he continued, “Not my will; YOUR will be done.”  He surrendered himself completely to the Father’s will, and, through the defeat of the cross, triumphed over death.

 

Christ IS with us, always, even to the end of the age, but only if WE are with HIM, doing the Father’s will, do we share his authority.  Few people are called to do this through actual martyrdom, but we are all called to do this through obedient self-sacrifice.  Think of another image from the night before Christ died, before he went to the garden.  He reclined with his disciples at table, and, during the meal, he got up, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciples’ feet.  When he had finished, he said to them, “You call me teacher and master, and rightly so, for indeed I am.  If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.  I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”  Obedient self-sacrifice through loving service of others.  That is the will of the Father for us; that is how we exercise the authority of God, an authority of, and for, service.

 

            Who speaks for God?  Who has that authority?  WE do.  All power in heaven and on earth has been given to us by Christ.  May we exercise it generously by obediently surrendering to God’s will and sacrificing ourselves in loving service of others.