Some years ago, I was counseling a middle-aged woman I’ll call Jane, who suffered from low self-esteem and constant insecurity. Her anxiety led to stress-related illnesses. It was as if she lived in a state of fear, worry and dread.
As I got to know more about her life and situation, it emerged that, when Jane was a girl, her mother had lost a brother in a car accident. The mother, who was now also deceased, had not gone to the funeral and, because of distance, had never visited his grave. She began to live under a cloud of grief and sadness, and Jane said she couldn’t remember living any other way. I suggested that we have a funeral Mass for both her mother and her uncle. Maybe if they were both mourned properly and prayed for, Jane’s sadness and anxiety would lift.
That is exactly what happened.
The next week, at an ordinary daily Mass, we celebrated a requiem for Jane’s mother and uncle. When I saw her two weeks later, Jane explained that the night after the Mass she couldn’t sleep and felt she was on an emotional high. Over the next few days, she realized the cloud of grief and sadness she had lived with for so long had started to dissipate. It took another six months of counseling and prayer for Jane’s life to be completely realigned, but the breakthrough was when we celebrated Mass for her departed family members.
In this month of November, it is the Church’s tradition to pray for the holy souls. We do so specifically on All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2. We continue to do so throughout the month. Unfortunately, the custom of having Masses said for the repose of the souls of our loved ones is fading away. It’s unfortunate because praying for the dead is a righteous, just and healthy thing to do.
The custom comes to us from the Hebrew religion. In the 12th chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees in the Old Testament, after a great battle, the general Judas sent silver to Jerusalem for sacrifices to be made for the dead. The chapter concludes, “It is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.”
We conclude from this that it is not only a good thing to offer the sacrifice of the Mass for the dead, but that it is efficacious. It is vital to remember that the Mass is not just a dead symbol or an empty religious ritual. The sacraments effect what they signify. To put it bluntly, they do something.
When we offer the sacrifice of the Mass for our departed loved ones, they are helped in their journey through purgatory. Mystics of the Church, including St. Padre Pio, have had visitations from souls in purgatory affirming that Masses said for them free them from their temporal suffering and assist them on their way to heaven. This amazing webpage (MysticsoftheChurch.com) recounts the visions and messages received by numerous approved mystics on the truth of purgatory and the power of prayers and masses for the souls who are there.
From my experience with Jane and other individuals, I am convinced that prayers for the souls in purgatory also help those who are still on this earth. Living souls can remain under a shadow of grief and sadness when, for whatever reason, they have not grieved properly. Sometimes they carry a burden of guilt because their relationship with their loved one was stained with sin. Maybe for many years they were bearing a grudge and never forgave the person before that person died.
When they finally offer a Mass for the souls of their loved ones, the bondage is broken. They are delivered — and by Christ’s power receive reconciliation, healing and release.
This is why it is a good, proper and healthy practice to offer prayers and Masses for the dead. We should bring our departed loved ones to the Lord not only throughout the month of November, but beyond. We should remember them silently at every Mass. Whenever the priest prays for the departed at Mass, we should be alert and participate fully and bring to mind all those we know who have crossed the river and are waiting on the other side.
We are an Easter people. Jesus died and rose again to gain eternal victory over death. This is not simply an intellectual belief we recite in the Creed. It is a dynamic reality, and we should live and pray as if we believe it to be so.
Through the sacrifice of the Mass, Christ’s victory over evil is brought into the present moment and applied to our needs. It is our duty, therefore, to pray for ourselves and for those who are asleep in Christ, so that, together, one day we might all share in his glory.
Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of
Charleston, South Carolina.