Earlier this month, as the temperatures in Cleveland soared into the 70s, it was difficult to remember that we were in the midst of November. Today, as I gaze out of my classroom window the world looks cold, the sky is gray, and the trees have been stripped of almost all of their leaves. By that I mean that all is right with the world. It is difficult to see November as the month of our beloved dead when the sun is shining and the word breeze - rather than wind - is on people’s lips, so now that the weather is more in tune with the liturgical year it seems appropriate to focus our attention on those Christian souls who have crossed from the seen to the unseen world.
Unfortunately for all of us, the practice of praying for our beloved dead - or, more generally, for the souls in purgatory - has diminished over the past couple of generations. For some reason people point to the 2nd Vatican Council as the source of this downturn. Nowhere in the documents - and I know this without even doing any “fact checking” - do the Fathers of the Council tell people that they no longer need to pray for the deceased, and nowhere in the documents - again, no need to fact-check - do they note that Purgatory is no longer open for business.
I don’t need to fact-check because there is one hard and fast rule of Ecumenical Councils: they do not contradict each other. The belief in a need for souls to be cleansed (purged) after death and the belief in the efficacy of our prayers for those souls has been a part of Church teaching since the earliest days. By 1274 at the 2nd Council of Lyon the Church produced the “official” teaching on the dead: some souls need purification after death in order to attain the Beatific Vision (Heaven) and these souls benefit from our prayers and good works performed on their behalf.
In the 15th Century the Council of Florence basically repeated the doctrine as stated at Lyon, and at Trent in the mid-16th Century the Council Fathers warned against pursuing speculation about what was involved in the purgation process because popular legends (and outright scare tactics) had put the worst face possible on what happened to the “poor souls in Purgatory.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church holds the line on Purgatory, even making sure that the faithful understand that Purgatory is not a place, but rather “the state of those who die in God’s friendship.” The Catechism also doubles-down on our role in assisting these souls when it reminds all Catholics that “because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.”
Given both the unwavering and consistent teachings of the Church’s Magisterium throughout the centuries, as well as the fact that each one of us has family and friends who are deceased, it makes both logical and theological sense for us to spend time, and not just in November, praying for our beloved dead. And since the admonition given by Jesus “not to judge others” cuts both ways, we should refrain not only from assuming the worst (Hell) about others, but also from assuming the best (Heaven) - no matter what we might hear in a funeral homily. It may be consoling to us to assume that all the people we love are in Heaven, but our subsequent lack of prayers is definitely not consoling for them.
The Cardinal Virtue of Justice would tell us that we are to pray for our beloved dead since Justice is defined as giving to another what she or he is due. We owe it to these deceased family and friends to help them to move closer and closer to the glory of Heaven. But in addition, the Theological Virtue of Love or Charity (Caritas in Latin) compels us to go beyond Justice and pray for those “poor souls” in Purgatory who are forgotten and for whom no one prays. A traditional prayer for the forgotten of Purgatory goes as follows:
O merciful God, take pity on those souls who have no particular friends and intercessors to recommend them to Thee, who, either through the negligence of those who are alive, or through length of time are forgotten by their friends and by all. Spare them, O Lord, and remember Thine own mercy, when others forget to appeal to it. Let not the souls which Thou hast created be parted from thee, their Creator. Amen.
So let us always, and not just in November, pray for our dead sisters and brothers, known and unknown. They want, need, and deserve our prayers, and it is certain that their gratitude will not be forgotten when, as we are taught to hope, we will one day embrace those whose journey to the Kingdom was aided by our faithful efforts.