And so on All Souls Day and throughout the month of November, we pray for those who lived, to our eyes, a good and holy life, who cared for Christ in the hungry and poor, who died with the sacraments.
On Monday, with Catholics throughout the world, we will commemorate all the faithful departed -- those who have died in the last year, the beloved deceased members of our families, the victims of war, violence and genocide, those who have died of hunger, disease and neglect, the infants who have died in miscarriages or who have been killed through exposure or abortion, the Christians who have died for the faith in persecution, the anonymous who rest in common graves, those forgotten by the world and whose names are known only by God.
Contrary to the popular heresy that presumes that everyone who dies automatically goes to a "better place," the Catholic faith does not believe everyone who dies goes to heaven, especially immediately. Jesus told us emphatically not to judge, and this means not only not to condemn to Hell someone we thought was evil but also not to place in Heaven someone we thought good, for only God sees the heart.
And so on All Souls Day and throughout the month of November, we pray for those who lived, to our eyes, a good and holy life, who cared for Christ in the hungry and poor, who died with the sacraments. We also pray for those who lived, by human impressions, a life far from God, his sacraments and commandments, and who may have died in objectively sinful circumstances. We pray for them all, entrusting them to God's mercy.
We pray because the Church believes that to enter heaven, one not only must be free at death of the mortal sins that would lead one to the place of definitive self-exclusion from God we call Hell, but also completely attached to God and radically detached from all venial sin and everything that is not of God. "Nothing unclean shall enter heaven," the Book of Revelation stresses (Rev. 21:27). There are many who do not live and die with that type of purity of life and hence they need to be purified to enter into the kingdom in which God is all in all. This state in which the dead are decontaminated from all sin and worldliness has been traditionally called by the Church "Purgatory" from the Latin term purgare, which means "to cleanse." Pope Benedict, in a 2007 encyclical on Christian hope, says that Purgatory seems to be the state where "the great majority of people," go after they die.
The Church has believed in the need for purification after death since before she was founded. In the second book of Maccabees, written about 140 years before Christ's birth, we see that that the Jewish people offered sacrifices in the temple for all those Jews who had lived a double life and betrayed the Lord by carrying in their clothing various idols of the Greek pagans who sought to destroy the temple and extirpate the Jewish faith. If, the sacred author wrote, they "were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead" (2 Macc 12:43-45). In St. Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says, "Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Mt 12:32), implying quite clearly that there are some sins that can be forgiven in the age to come, the type of sin which St. John's first letter says is not "mortal" or "deadly" (1 John 5:16).
Continuing the tradition of the faithful Jews, the Church has therefore prayed for people to be purified of their venial sins, because "it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins" (2 Macc 12:45).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "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. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead" (CCC 1032).
In an Angelus meditation last November, Pope Francis urged us to carry out this spiritual work of mercy. "Church tradition," he said, "has always urged prayer for the dead, in particular by offering the celebration of the Eucharist for them: it is the best spiritual help that we can give to their souls, particularly to the most abandoned ones. The foundation of prayers in suffrage of souls is in the communion of the Mystical Body," and that communion is expressed most powerfully at Mass.
So let's get practical.
Are we praying for the dead? Are we carrying out this spiritual work of mercy as if others' lives depended on it? Do we have funeral and memorial Masses offered for our family members and attend Masses offered for others? Do we come to Mass on All Souls' Day and throughout November to pray for all the faithful departed? Do we pray the Rosary, asking Mary to pray for the dead at the hour of their death and for us now? Do we offer sacrifices for them and try to obtain indulgences for them?
Similarly, do we ask people to pray for us after we die? Have we passed on to the younger generations the example of praying for deceased loved ones? Do we take them to Masses offered for friends and family members and to the cemeteries to care for their grave and pray for them? Have we written in our will the desire for a funeral Mass and left what we can for Masses to be prayed for us, so that we can count on the prayers of the Church even if our family members are not as prayerful as they should be?
"It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead," Sacred Scripture tells us, and on Monday and throughout this month in particular way the Church prays: "Eternal Rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace."
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.