My favorite saints are St. Augustine and his mother St. Monica, who lived in the 5th century. Augustine was a wayward youth, and Monica prayed fervently for his conversion. She was kind of like the mother of the prodigal son. And indeed, he did convert to become one of the greatest scholars in the history of the Church.
Well, a couple of weeks before my father died, I read to him the famous passage from St. Augustine’s “Confessions” about the death of his mother. As she was approaching the end of her life, they were having a discussion about heaven, and he says they wondered what it would be like, as he says, to “share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, which has not even entered into the heart of man.” And he goes on, “We desired with all our hearts to drink from the streams of [the Lord's] heavenly fountain, the fountain of life.” And his mother said, “Son, as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world...” And as she is dying, she makes one request of her son, who is a priest and a bishop, “Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”
In other words, she was asking him to pray for her after shed died, especially at Mass. And as she had prayed so many years for his conversion, so now he prayed for her after her death. (cf. HPR Nov. ’97) “O god of my heart, I do now beseech Thee for the sins of my mother. Hear me through the medicine of the wounds that hung upon the wood [of the Cross]. May she, then, be in peace with her husband. And inspire, my Lord, [all those] whom I serve [with voice and heart and pen] to remember your servant Monica at the altar.”
Well, I read that story to my father, and I promised him that I too would remember him at the altar, especially when I celebrate Mass everyday.
But why do we pray for the dead? Especially those whom we consider to be saints, those who lived heroic lives and certainly went straight to heaven, what good does it do? We know that this is a common practice from the earliest days of the church, especially when the early Christians venerated the martyrs who died in the Roman persecutions. But what does it mean?
Well, we know we can do good works for others while we are on this earth. According to the tradition of the Church, based on the Scriptures, we can perform the Corporal Works of Mercy: feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; bury the dead.
But, we can also perform what are called Spiritual Works of Mercy: convert the sinner; instruct the ignorant; counsel the doubtful; comfort the sorrowful; bear wrongs patiently; forgive injuries; and finally, to pray for the living and the dead.
In other words, praying for the dead is a work of mercy. But how does it help them?
I think St. Catherine of Genoa summed it up best. She said, “No one is barred from heaven. Whoever wants to enter heaven may do so because God is all-merciful. Our Lord will welcome us into glory with his arms wide open. The Almighty is pure, however, and if a person is conscious of the least trace of imperfection and at the same time understands that Purgatory is ordained to do away with such impediments, the soul enters this place of purification gladly to accept so great a mercy of God. The worst suffering if these suffering souls is to have sinned against divine Goodness and not to have been purified in this life.” (ICG, v7, Nov2)
Just as we can help each other on our path to heaven while on this earth, we can also help those who have died and are being purified in Purgatory. While we are separated from them physically, we are not separated spiritually, so we can offer them spiritual works, which would include our prayers, sacrifices, and acts of charity. All of these acts of mercy, when done through, with, and in Christ, are of great benefit to those who have died and helps them as they are being purified. And this happens especially here at the Mass, at the altar where St. Monica wanted to be remembered. For in the Mass, we are transported through time, as it were, to the foot of Calvary, where we look up at our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross and say with the good thief, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And so it is here that we can say, “Lord, remember our loved ones who have died, and bring them into your kingdom.”
And certainly our prayers for the dead are never wasted. I remember the story of an elderly monk who was found praying fervently at the altar by one of the younger monks. And the younger one asked him, “What are you praying for?” “I’m praying for my grandfather.” “Well, certainly he is in heaven by now.” To which the older monk replied, “Ah yes, but it is the prayers I am saying now, the prayers I have said, and the prayers I will say that helped get him there.” Our prayers in union with Christ are always effective, and we can’t put limits on them.
But our prayers for the dead remind us also of our own need to prepare for death. I think a lot of people live their lives on earth doing the minimum requirements to get into heaven, as if they were shooting for purgatory. Certainly God is merciful, but my only worry about living this way is simple: What if you miss? The saints will be the first to tell you that we begin our heaven now, and this is the best time to begin the process of purification. For now, we can actively seek to purify ourselves, while in purgatory, we can only rely on the prayers of others. And the way we purify ourselves now is through growth in holiness. Through sincere repentance and penance for our sins, through prayer and sacrifice, through active works of charity for others, we grow in holiness and God’s grace purifies us as we use this life to prepare for eternal life.
And finally, another beautiful thing about praying for the dead is that it reminds us of what Jesus said, that God “is not the God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
What a great consolation it is to know that we can still be united with those who have died. Knowing that they are with the Lord, whether enjoying eternal happiness or in the process of being purified, and that we can still talk to them, pray for them, and even make amends with them, if necessary, saying those things we didn’t get a chance to say… knowing that is a cause of great rejoicing. For one day, we will be united with them again, where there will be no more sin, no more sorrow, no more tears, and we will never be separated from each other by sin or death again. And, in that place we care called to, the Kingdom of Heaven, “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
A collection of various homilies I've preached over the years. These homilies may not be reprinted without permission, however, priests and deacons are welcome to borrow ideas for preaching. I try my best to give credit to my sources when I borrow ideas and themes (we call this "preacher's privilege"), but I'm sure I missed a few. Enjoy!