Don’t Forget the Dead! Reviving Lost Spiritual Practices

Karol Tichy (1871-1939), "Elegy (Funeral)"
Karol Tichy (1871-1939), "Elegy (Funeral)" (photo: Register Files)

In an enormous cultural and spiritual shift, praying for the dead has shifted from a central Catholic practice to having a marginal role in our liturgical and personal lives.

If we do not pray for our departed loved ones (and also those whom we did not know) we do them an incomprehensible disservice and break the bonds of charity which are meant to keep the Church united in its three states: militant, suffering, and triumphant. Just as we receive great assistance from the Church triumphant through the intercession of the saints, so we must deliver assistance to the Church suffering by praying for the souls in purgatory.

The Catechism intricately connects the doctrine of purgatory to the practice of praying for the dead:

This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Mac 12:46). 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 (Cf. Council of Lyons II). The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead (1020).

From many conversations and comments over the years, it seems to me that purgatory has faded from daily memory and practice (though it may be remembered as a doctrine stored away somewhere). When someone dies we do not say that we will pray for the repose of his or her soul. We say that he or she is already happy in heaven. Many people have commented that funerals have gone from mourning and praying for salvation to informal canonization ceremonies.

There could be no greater contrast to our practices today than what we see in medieval piety. The greatest source I have found, which presents the centrality of praying for the dead in medieval culture is Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars. Duffy affirms that “the safe transition of . . . souls from this world to the next, above all with the shortening and easing of their stay in purgatory” was “the overwhelming preoccupation of the clergy and laity alike.” This was true for their own souls, but also the “influence of the cult of the dead was ubiquitous” (301; 302). This took a number of forms:

  • Days of remembrance “on the seventh and the thirtieth day after burial, and on the first anniversary of death” (327).
  • The wills of the dying endowed special chantry altars and priests whose sole, daily occupation was to offer Masses and the Office of Dead (328).
  • Those who had less money could enroll in the “bede-roll” in which the deceased would be remembered in an annual requiem Mass or even in the regular reading of the roll each Sunday (334).

This just scratches the surface, but the effect of these prayers was the “prolonging the presence of the dead within the community of the living” (303). Remembering the dead ensures that we maintain real bonds of community with them.

The medieval tradition was maintained somewhat in the regular celebrations of Requiem Masses, which lasted until the middle of the twentieth century and can still be seen in the celebration of the extraordinary form. The presence of the dead on All Souls Day and at any Requiem Mass has been symbolized by the construction of a catafalque. (Most people these days only know the Requiem Mass from its beautiful Mass settings composed by Mozart, Verde, Fauré, and many others).

In order to come to the aid of the souls in purgatory and to revive important lost practices central to Catholic culture, there are a few simple things we can do right now:

1. Pray every day for our departed loved ones and for all the souls in purgatory. Remember them while praying the rosary and divine mercy chaplet. We can also offer up penances and sacrifices on their behalf. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in his encyclical Spe Salvi, it is also time to restore the practice of offering up our daily trials and sufferings.

2. You can also remember the dead by praying for the repose of souls after the grace before or the prayer after meals. Here is the traditional prayer after meals: “We give Thee thanks for all Thy benefits, O Almighty God, Who livest and reignest forever. And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

3. The most important time to remember those in purgatory comes during the Eucharistic prayer at Mass. In the Eucharist prayers there is always a commemoration of the dead and we can specifically call them to mind and offer them to the Father in union with Christ’s Eucharistic sacrifice.

4. Offering Masses for the dead on the anniversary of death and at other times comprises a crucial means of aiding the holy souls. This is the most powerful way to remember those we love. St. Bonaventure in his Breviloquium says that there are certain acts by which we “are best able to render satisfaction and repay honor to God” on behalf of the dead, “but the honor due to God is best rendered in the sacrifice of the altar” (part 7, ch. 3).

5. Following a series of Masses that St. Gregory the Great offered for one his departed monks, who made his suffering in purgatory known at his monastery, it has become a practice to offer 30 consecutive Masses for a departed soul. This is known as Gregorian Masses, and due to the sustained commitment needed, it is usually more common to find the practice undertaken by religious orders and monasteries.

6. The Church has generously offered many indulgences in recent decades, with the most recent being offered by Pope Francis for the coming Jubilee Year of Mercy. Indulgences can be offered to relieve the souls in purgatory by means of suffrage, supplication on behalf of the dead. As the Catechism states in paragraph 1471: “An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.” The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.”

7. It is important to visit cemeteries to preserve our memory of the dead, but also as an opportunity for prayer. Parents should teach their children to understand our abiding community and to learn to assist the holy souls. A special indulgence can be granted within the first week of November: “Visit to a Cemetery. Only applicable to the souls in Purgatory when one devoutly visits and prays for the departed.  A PLENARY INDULGENCE is bestowed for this work each day between November 1 and November 8” (Enchridion of Indulgences).

 Let’s not forget the dead, but rather revive lost practices of our faith to strengthen the bonds of the communion of saints and to aid the souls in need of our prayer.