Wednesday, November 2, 2011

All Souls' Day: Praying for the dead is a Christian duty

Yesterday, we celebrated the saints in heaven with All Saints' Day. Today, we remember and pray for the departed souls in purgatory.

Why pray for the dead? Is it Scriptural?

Well, I'm not a theological expert, so I can't explain exactly how praying for anyone (dead or not) works. I just know that we are commanded to pray for one another. Scripture commands us to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and specifically demands that we intercede "for one another" (James 5:16) and that we pray "for all" (1 Timothy 2:1). There are no qualifiers in these instructions; nothing that would imply that death separates the Body of Christ or makes prayers ineffective. In addition to this, we know that praying for the souls of the dead was a Jewish practice that Christians continued. 2 Maccabees 12:46 reads: "It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from sins."

Interestingly, the Apostle Paul seems to refer to praying for the dead (in this case, his friend Onesiphorus) in his second letter to Timothy. Specifically, he wrote (important part highlighted): "May the Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he was in Rome, he sought me diligently, and found me (the Lord grant to him to find the Lord's mercy on that day); and in how many things he served at Ephesus, you know very well." At the very least, reasonable people could conclude that at the time Paul wrote this, Onesiphorus had died and left behind a family (i.e. "house"), and that Paul was praying in the highlighted words that Onesiphorus would be granted God's mercy on the Day of Judgement.

Why are Catholics the only Christians who pray for the dead?

Catholics are not alone in the practice of praying for the dead. All historic and ancient bodies of Christians pray for the souls of the dead: the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East all continue the ancient Christian practice of praying for the dead. It ain't just a Catholic thing - it's a basic act of Christian mercy. I'd even go so far as to say it's a Christian duty. The fact is that the only body of Christians in the history of Christianity who have given up praying for the dead is Protestantism.

When did All Souls' Day begin?

It seems as though a Benedictine abbot (i.e. the leader of a Benedictine monastery) named St. Odilo was the first to introduce a day set aside for praying for the souls of all the faithful departed. Pope Sylvester II (d. 1003) approved and encouraged the practice, and the idea soon spread to other monasteries in Europe. Over the next few centuries, dioceses and parish churches began to adopt and celebrate All Souls' Day as well. It was officially added to the calendar in Rome in the fourteenth century.

It seems that November 2 was chosen so that the remembrance of all the "holy souls", both of the saints in heaven and of the souls in purgatory, might be celebrated on two successive days. This emphasizes the belief that all are members of the Church, in the "communion of saints."

How do we celebrate All Souls' Day?

Most traditions surrounding this day involve praying for deceased friends and family members. Many people visit the graves of their departed family members on this day. Others can't make the journey and are content to visit the local church to attend Mass and/or light candles and pray for their departed loved ones. As mentioned yesterday, the traditional liturgical color for today's Masses is black, a color which denotes mournful respect and quiet reverence. Violet or white are acceptable alternatives.

In the older form of the Mass (i.e. the Extraordinary Form), there was a sequence (or hymn) that was chanted before the Gospel reading. Originally composed during the 13th century by an anonymous Franciscan friar, it is called, in Latin, the Dies Irae, or "Day of Wrath." It's haunting lyrics are a chilling reminder to us all of the four last things: death, judgement, heaven or hell. It's words are sobering and worth reading, at least in part, on this day. It begins:

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.

What horror must invade the mind, 
when the approaching Judge shall find
and sift the deeds of all mankind.

The mighty trumpet's wondrous tone
shall rend each tomb's sepulchral stone
and summon all before the Throne.

Now death and nature with surprise
behold the trembling sinners' rise
to meet the Judge's searching eyes.

Then shall with universal dread
the Book of Consciences be read
to judge the lives of all the dead.

For now before the Judge severe
all hidden things must plain appear; 
no crime can pass unpunished here.

The text goes on (19 verses in all!), describing in macabre detail the fate that awaits us all: the final judgement on the last day. The last verses speak of the contrite pleas we should have to our merciful Lord:

Before you, humbled, Lord I lie,
my heart, like ashes, crushed and dry,
please assist me when I die.

Full of tears and full of dread, 
is that day that wakes the dead,
calling all with solemn blast
to be judged for all their past.

Lord have mercy, Jesus blest,
grant them all your light and rest. Amen.

Indeed. May all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.