Praying for the departed on their journey - Catholic Courier

Praying for the departed on their journey

One of the greatest consolations offered me by my Catholic faith is our belief in the communion of saints. This belief binds us not just to other Christians and people of goodwill throughout the world, but to those who have gone before us in grace, "marked by the sign of Christ."

You’ll find many Catholics who will admit to praying to their deceased moms or long-dead grandparents for their intercession in times of need. Likewise, we pray to many canonized saints, but also to those who have not yet been canonized. Dorothy Day; Archbishop Oscar Romero; Father Edward Flanagan, who founded Boys Town; and Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe, the superior general of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1983, are some of my favorites. I feel near to them when I ask their help.

We have a long Catholic tradition of praying for the dead. This is regarded as such a vital obligation that every time we go to Mass we pray for the deceased during the eucharistic prayer.

As early as the ninth century, monasteries began to set aside a day to pray for their departed members. It was about this time that Nov. 2 became the day we think of as All Souls’ Day, and today many churches use the month of November as a time to enter their loved ones for prayer in a "book of the dead."

Although for many in the U.S., Memorial Day in the spring has become a traditional day to visit graves, many Catholics make an effort to visit their loved ones’ graves around All Souls’ Day.

For Mexican-Americans and some Latin Americans, during "el dia de los muertos," they remember and feel the presence of their deceased loved ones. This old tradition predates the Spanish civilization in Mexico. Some celebrate it for three days with the third day of the "dia de los muertos" falling on the feast of All Souls’ Day.

Why do we place such an emphasis on prayer for the dead? Part of this stems from the beautiful communion we feel with them. The Irish philosopher John O’Donohue liked to say that the Irish believed in "thin places" where eternity and this world’s reality touch. Some of those places are the graveyards of our beloved or the anniversaries of their births or deaths. By praying for them, we are able to feel their presence in Jesus’ mystical body, which is his church.

Another reason we pray for the dead is because of our long Catholic tradition of purgatory. I flinch sometimes when I hear people describe purgatory as a horrible place where God employs profound suffering.

Rather, today we see a merciful God who wants to draw all near to him. But are we ready?

If I were to be hit by a truck today, in the midst of my busy life, would I be ready for the beatific vision of God? I don’t think so. I would need a time of purgation, of purification. Maybe I would be allowed to see the pain my selfishness had caused, the consequences of my actions. I would understand myself better and learn to know a bit more about God before I was allowed to see God’s face.

But in reality, we don’t know exactly what death brings. I had a friend who worked with a program called "No One Dies Alone." He would be present with a person who was dying but had no one else to be by the bedside. Usually he knew nothing about the person with whom he walked on this journey. But one thing he said has stayed with me: "I always sensed that they were falling into the arms of a merciful God."

And so we pray them on their way. We pray for them, for their peace and for the unity we want to share.

Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.


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