The final Spiritual Work of Mercy, Pray for the Living and the Dead, can be seen as a stand-alone in contrast to the groupings of Works that center on vigilance or watchfulness on the one hand (the first three Works) and reconciliation on the other (the next three). Yet it can also be seen as an over-arching Work that ties all of the others together. When we Pray for the Living and the Dead we are often praying for those whom we have encountered while performing the other Spiritual (as well as Corporal) Works of Mercy.
The Church is often described in terms of both the Communion of Saints as well as the Mystical Body of Christ. These two images get to the heart of the Church’s identity as communio. In his manifesto at the founding of the scholarly journal International Catholic Review – now called simply Communio – Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar referred back to the early days of the Church where those first Christians saw themselves as part of a small and insignificant group facing a hostile world yet understood that the Gospel that they proposed was catholic or universal and therefore normative for the entire world.
This Mystical Body of Christ isn’t one among many – it is the only one. And therefore the Communion of Saints – no matter where they are – all are a part of that Body. Von Balthasar is clear on this when he states: “The universal (catholic) community is not just one among many. Bestowed on us by God, freely given, it is the only one that is unrestricted in scope.” As it relates to the last of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, this belief in the unrestricted scope of the Church helps us to always remember in our prayers not only the living, but also the dead.
The Mystical Body of Christ includes what tradition has called the Church Militant – those on earth – and the Church Triumphant – those in Heaven, but also those in the Communion of Saints who are in Purgatory. Here is where the catholic nature (as well as the Catholic nature) of the Body of Christ shows its universality, since the truly ‘inclusive’ understanding of the Communion of Saints must also make room for those who are presently in the state of purgation or purification prior to their Heavenly reward.
In the traditional language of the Church, those in Purgatory are designated as part of the Church Penitent, the Church Suffering and the Church Expectant. These titles aren’t simply three ways of saying the same thing, instead they point to different aspects of the experience of those in Purgatory. They are sorry for their sins and are therefore penitent. They are being cleansed of their spiritual imperfections and are therefore suffering. They know that their salvation is assured and are therefore expectant.
Just as we support our sisters and brothers in the Church Militant with our prayers so to we are called to support our sisters and brothers in the Church Penitent-Suffering-Expectant. To ignore them, for whatever reason, is to do them a disservice and is to leave unfulfilled our call to Pray for the Living and the Dead. If praying for those who are alive and are experiencing hardships is essential how much more so is the necessity of praying for those who are making their way along the difficult path through Purgatory.
Anyone who is familiar with the middle book of Dante’s Divine Comedy knows what the souls go through as they climb the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, as they are cleansed from their attachments to the Seven Deadly Sins. Beginning with the worst of the Seven, Pride, where they are bent over as they carry heavy stones, and culminating with passing through a cleansing fire of the final Deadly Sin, Lust, each penitent makes her or his way to the top of the mountain and the entrance to Heaven.
The images presented by Dante are just that – images, yet they point to the reality experienced by the members of the Church Penitent-Suffering-Expectant. Those in Purgatory might not actually be climbing a mountain, but their experience must feel something like it and one could not blame them for wondering if they can complete their task.
As a retired CYO cross country parent I have similar images seared into my memory. I have seen first-hand the effect that a cheering section can have on a struggling runner and I have also witnessed that the runner who finishes last gets more cheers and pats on the back than the one who finishes first. We have an innate desire to help those who doubt themselves and their abilities and who struggle to not give up. We are happier when those runners see the race through to the end than we are when a talented runner effortlessly breaks the tape.
The same applies to the Communion of Saints. We expect Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II to cross the finish line without breaking a sweat, but they are the exception rather than the rule. We should rather imagine the person who was a thorn in our side who now realizes just how difficult she or he was to be around in this life and who desperately needs our prayers – our cheering them on – in order to complete their heavily burdened march up the mountain.
To ignore this command to Pray for the Dead, as well as the Living, is to deprive the Spiritual Works of their essential characteristic – Mercy.