Given at a Solemn Mass according to the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite
The form of the Mass for the Dead which we have celebrated this evening leaves us in no doubt whatsoever about what it is that we are here to do. The very first words of the Mass, sung by the choir, began a plea that we made again and again throughout the rite: Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. We are here to pray for our beloved dead, for those whom we love and see no longer, that they may enter that place of refreshment, light, and peace that is eternal happiness with God. We are here to carry out an act of charity on behalf of those who have died; doing for them a service which they can no longer do for themselves.
Of course if we are praying to God for our faithful departed, we must understand what it is that we are praying for. First of all we are asking God to look kindly on the souls of the dead. We are not, as it were, seeking to change His mind, but rather asking Him to bring those faithful members of His Mystical Body the Church into the fullness of His presence. As Saint John of the Cross has it, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” So our prayer is not a bargaining with God, but rather our way of showing our love for God, and also for the departed, that He might look on them with love.
Secondly, we pray for the departed because we desire for them the kingdom of heaven. We are praying so that those who have died might enter heaven, having been purified by God’s redeeming love. We call this final purification purgatory, and it is often depicted as a place of fire. This can create confusion in our minds because we also see the “eternal fire” of hell. But purgatory is not hell. The flames of purgatory are flames that cauterise our wounds; the heat they put out is a result of the warmth of God’s love, which is ultimately the means by which we are purified and made ready for the heavenly court. Those souls in purgatory are not in some halfway house between heaven and hell. They are holy souls, and they are bound for heaven. Our prayers assist them on that journey.
Pope Benedict, speaking before his election to the papacy, said: “I would go so far as to say that if there was no purgatory, then we would have to invent it, for who would dare say of himself that he was able to stand directly before God. And yet we don’t want to be, to use an image from Scripture, ‘a pot that turned out wrong,’ that has to be thrown away; we want to be able to be put right. Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together again. That he can cleanse us in such a way that we are able to be with him and can stand there in the fullness of life.” In our prayer today we ask God to carry out this final saving work.
So prayer for the dead is important for those who have already died, but our dedication to this act of charity is also important for us. The seriousness and devotion with which we intercede for our deceased friends and benefactors and family members teaches others, and particularly the young, about the need to carry on this work. It is one of the most important elements of our family devotional life, in fact, because we each know that one day we will benefit from the prayers of younger generations. And in a very striking way at the conclusion of this Mass we will be reminded of our mortality as we pray the traditional absolution around the catafalque. The empty coffin arranged as for a funeral is a sacramental sign of what we are about, and at the same time a memento mori, a reminder of the death that will one day be ours. May our prayers for the faithful departed today and throughout this month of the Holy Souls be fervent and sincere, that they may in turn pray for us, that we may join them in the everlasting light and peace of the kingdom of heaven.