Fr. Jacob Otherakunnel V.C
Praying for the dead is a custom and practice found in almost all the major religions. People pray for the dead and offer sacrifices for them. Hindus pray for their dead because of their faith in the rebirth and transmigration of souls. For Christians this practice has been in vogue since the beginning of Christianity. And its base can be traced to the faith of the Israelites. The fact that the Israelites used to pray for and offer sacrifices for their dead is mentioned in the second book of Maccabees. "....and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out"(2 Mac.12:39-45).This is a clear pointer to the faith of the Jews, to the fact that the sins of the dead can be blotted out through prayers and supplications.
In Jewish literature there are references to "Gehenna"- a place where sinners are punished. But there was also a belief that those who had numerous good deeds to their credit would stay there only for a short period. This belief took root only in the later history of Judaism.
Jesus did not covertly or overtly nullify or speak against this faith of the Jews by which they held that there is a place of temporary bondage from which the souls of the dead get a final release. And so the infant Church also kept up the faith of later Judaism with regard to the dead. They called this place of transient punishment purgatory. There is no unanimous opinion as to the nature of purgatory, whether it is spacial, temporal or a life-situation. The process of purging the departed souls from minor impurities can be called purgatory. The souls of those who die in the state of grace but not absolute grace may not have direct access to the heavenly bliss. A large majority of those who die may not be completely free of the stains of all venial sins before their death.
Therefore it is not possible for them to gain entrance to the portals of heaven before being purified of those stains. Sacred Scripture bears testimony to this: "But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life" (Rev.21:27). To condemn those who die in venial sins to eternal perdition is against divine justice.Those who have made a "fundamental choice for Jesus " but fail on account of their frail human nature really intend to do the will of God. They cannot be eternally condemned even if at the time of death they are not in the full state of grace. So purgatory as a place of temporary punishment - midway between heaven and hell-becomes necessary. Therefore this faith is founded not only on Scripture but even human reason impels us to believe it.
Though the term "purgatory" as such does not occur in the Bible there are indications and subtle references to this in the Bible. While teaching about forgiveness of sins, Jesus said, "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). St. Augustine and St. Gregory teach that this reference to the "age to come" is a reference to purgatory. Mathew 16:27 says: "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done". Luke 12:47-48 says, "That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating". Where can this light beating be given ?. Here or hereafter ? St. John in his first letter says : "If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one- to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal"(5:16-17). St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians writes thus: "Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw- the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer a loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire" (1Cor.3:12-15). These references point to the fact that those who die in venial sins will be purified in purgatory.
Apostles are the ones who received the divine truths directly from Jesus and they handed down those truths to the Church; the teaching to pray for the dead was among them. In the infant Church prayers for the dead and requiem Masses for them were common. The Fathers of the Church bear testimony to the fact that this practice was handed down from the Apostles. The tombs of the martyrs and underground cemeteries had several inscriptions pointing to this faith. For instance: "Remember those who went before you in your prayers". Tertullian who lived between 160-240 wrote: Once in a year we pray for the dead and offer Masses for them. St. Monica(331-387), mother of St. Augustine had said to his son, "When I die bury me anywhere you like, don't bother about it. But I request you to remember and pray for me at the altar. " These prayers reflect the mind of the early Church with regard to the dead.
The above references show that the early Church had faith in the existence of purgatory and prayed for the dead and offered Holy Masses for them. The Church continued this practice till date.
The Catholic Church accepts tradition along with the Sacred Scripture as the source of revelation. Even before the New Testament books were collected and their canonicity declared in the Council of Hippo in 394, the practice of praying for the dead was common in the early Church. So the Church cannot neglect this practice of praying for the dead even if there is no direct reference in the Bible.
As the personality traits of a human being unfold as he advances in years, so it is with the Church. The mind of the Church was revealed through the mind of the Church Fathers who were in proximity with Jesus and the Apostles and thus the doctrines were spelt out in definite terms as the Church advanced in years. So the belief that the prayers of the living can help those in purgatory is based on Scripture, tradition and theology which form the basis of all other articles of faith of the Christians.
By the teaching of the Church in the communion of saints we believe that there is not only a social but also a spiritual relation existing between human beings. There is a strong spiritual relationship existing between the members of the Church- the suffering Church(those in purgatory), the militant Church(those saints living on the earth) and the triumphant Church (those in heaven). The members of the Church can mutually help one another. Therefore our prayers can help those in purgatory and those in heaven in turn can intercede for us on earth and in purgatory.This is a matter of great consolation for us. Therefore a binding duty has devolved on us to pray for the departed souls of our parents, relatives, friends, benefactors and even those who died without any relative still alive. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He is not only the God of the living but also the God of the dead. For him the dead and the living are always before his eyes. So let's not forget our duties towards the dead (Sir.7:33).