November 3, 2011
Along Rome’s Via Appia are perhaps the best known and most visited graves of early Christians: the catacombs. Christians living in ancient Rome tunneled through soft tufa rock outside the city and carved out graves for their dead, since Roman law did not allow burial within the city limits. Unlike their pagan neighbors, the early Christians did not cremate their dead. Instead, following Jewish custom, they reverently placed them in tombs in the sure hope of the resurrection. Today, there are at least sixty known Christian catacombs lining the roads leading into the city.
On one tombstone taken from the catacombs and now in the Lateran Museum, there is a touching epitaph. A husband declares that he has placed an inscription for his beloved wife Lucifera “in order that all who read it may pray for her, that she may reach God.” He is not alone in his desire for prayers to be offered for the dead.
The catacombs of St. Callixtus are among the most important of Rome. Four levels deep and encompassing over ninety acres of land, this vast underground cemetery covers twelve miles. If laid out in one continuous tunnel, it would extend the whole length of Italy itself. Along the walls of these catacombs, there are inscriptions recording the last words of a dying Christian pleading for prayers after death. There are also many other inscriptions echoing the response to those requests. Again and again, we come upon the prayer “
May you have eternal light in Christ.”
In those first centuries, Christians wanted prayers offered for them after death and their relatives obliged. Even the saints in heaven are asked to join their prayers with the living for the dead. At the entrance of the Crypt of the Popes in St. Callixtus, the wall is covered with this request: “
O St. Sixtus, remember in your prayers Aurelius Repentinus.”
From the pen of St. Augustine comes one of the most touching requests for prayers for the dead. In his
Confessions, St. Augustine tells us of his own mother’s request to him. On her deathbed, she said to her son, “Lay this body anywhere; let not the care of it in any way disturb you. This only I request of you, that you would remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you be.”
(Confessions, Book 9).
So moved was St. Augustine by this request of his mother that, when he wrote his Confessions, his heart, still tearful at the thought of her death, swelled up with this fervent prayer:
O God…laying aside for a while her good deeds, for which I give thanks to you with joy, I do now beseech you for the sins of my mother. Hearken unto me, I entreat you, by…your wounds…Forgive her, Lord, forgive, I beseech you; enter not into judgment with her. Let your mercy be exalted above your justice, since your words are true, and you have promised mercy unto the merciful…
Why would St. Monica ask her son to pray for her after death? Why would St. Augustine pray for her? Why do Catholics pray for the dead and Protestants do not.
When we die, we will face judgment. What will take place at that moment will determine our fate for eternity. Death will be like turning on the light switch that makes us see with utter clarity what we have been choosing all our life. And what will that mean?
Those who have chosen again and again to act against truth and love to such a degree that they have suffocated even the desire for truth and love will see themselves locked in their own selfishness. They will have already cut themselves off from union with God who is truth and love. This is hell. Others who have again and again chosen to live in truth and complete openness to others will be ready for communion with God. This is heaven.
But, as Pope Benedict has taught, the vast majority of people are neither that bad nor that good. They live loving God and neighbor. However, at times they compromise with evil. Before entering into the all-holy presence of God, they need to be purified. This is purgatory (cf.
Spe Salvi, 46). The Lord has mercifully provided for “. . . spirits of a middle sort, too black for heaven and yet too white for hell, who just dropped half-way down, nor lower fell” (John Dryden,
The Hind and the Panther).
When we think of purgatory, we are trying to put in temporal terms a reality that takes place outside of time. We use images, such as fire, from this world to try to understand a reality that is beyond this world. As Pope Benedict XVI teaches, “the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior…Before his gaze, all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. At the moment of judgment, we experience …the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil … The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy”(
Spe Salvi, 47).
As members of the communion of saints, we remain always joined to all those who are in Christ, both living and dead. “A living communion…exists between us and [those] who are yet being purified after their death...” (
Lumen Gentium, 51). As we pray for one another while living, we pray for the dead who are in need of purification. Love transcends time.
As Catholics, when we bury our beloved, we gather at the Eucharist to pray for them. It has become the custom at our funeral Masses to remember the dead and all the good they have done. But, the funeral Mass is never the Mass of canonization. It is the moment to pray for mercy and forgiveness for those who have died. And it should not be the last time we pray for the dead.
In every Mass, we remember the dead in our prayers. Their memory is sacred; our love is strong. We pray daily for those who have gone before us in death. We have Masses said for the dead. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose preached, “We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord.”
In praying for the dead, we witness the unbroken faith of the Church that our prayers somehow benefit the dead. In our prayers, Christ hears again the tears and cries of Martha and Mary at the grave of Lazarus, and he will always respond to our hope in him, with the same cry as then, calling our beloved to the fullness of life with him.