The Missa pro defunctis of the Roman rite is a particularly eloquent expression of that idea first found in the writings of Saint Prosper of Aquitaine: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. To paraphrase: the law of prayer establishes the law of belief. The proper texts and rituals of the Requiem Mass, a part of the law of prayer, point to Christian doctrine (that is, the law of belief) and in particular what the Church believes about those who have died. Each word and action this way of celebrating the Mass, offered this evening in its solemn form, beautifully demonstrates what we believe to be our role as the Church militant with respect to our deceased brethren, the Church expectant. There is no doubting that in this somewhat stark and precise liturgical rite we discover a fulsome and rich theology of the dead. By it, echoing the words of the Introit, we offer a true hymn of praise to God, and in particular do so on behalf of our beloved dead: “Thou, O God, art praised in Sion, and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem: thou that hearest the prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come” (Ps. 65). In union with the supreme Eucharistic oblation, then, we here present ourselves and our prayers for those “who have gone before us sealed with the seal of faith, and who sleep the sleep of peace,” beseeching the Lord God to grant them “the abode of refreshing, of light, and of peace;” an abode that is found and offered to the faithful in Sion; the heavenly Jerusalem.
It is particularly fitting that we offer this Mass for the Dead in these final days of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Amongst the corporal works of mercy, as is well-known to us, we find the encouragement to bury the dead. In connection with this is prayer for the dead; it is the ultimate act of mercy and respect for the deceased not simply to prepare their body for burial, but to pray for their eternal repose, and it is the perfect act of prayer for the deceased to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on their behalf.
And this, in turn, points us to reflect on the true nature of mercy. Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks to us of affective and effective mercy. That is, perhaps somewhat simplistically, the emotional response toward another, somewhat like compassion, and the positive action that we undertake to relieve the troubles of another. Surely in offering this noble act of prayer for those who have died these two characteristics are held in tandem: we care for our beloved dead in our hearts, and at the same time express this in prayer for them. And importantly, in the context of this liturgical action, these two characteristics are truly rooted in the essential aspects of mercy, rightly understood: right reason, and the knowledge that our action is oriented toward effective results. We know that by our prayers, as the Council of Trent teaches, “the souls detained [in purgatory] are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.” So we do not simply express a kindly but inane sentiment, but do something tangible about it.
Conscious of the opportunities that are presented to us in this context, then, let us continue to engage in this merciful work long after the close of this Jubilee. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church would have it: “The Church … commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC 1032). May these opportunities for grace for us, and of assistance to the faithful departed, keep alive and more widely promote an orthodox cult of prayer for the dead amongst the Christian faithful. By this we not only offer our own sacrifice of praise to God, and on behalf of our beloved departed, but also pass on to others this laudable practice so that, in our own time, we too might benefit from the fruits of this prayer.