A man died on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, this past Sunday. He was a priest, theologian, and author, well-known in Catholic circles for writing books and articles that were theologically problematic. He was, one might say for lack of a better descriptor, a “liberal Catholic.” As news of his death spread around cyberspace, Catholics on both sides of the Catholic theological spectrum commented on his passing in social media.
To the best of my knowledge, no one has offered any evidence that this man was a bad human being. His views of the Catholic faith were flawed, but he himself was widely regarded by ideological friends and enemies alike as a gracious man.
Imagine my surprise then as I watched my Facebook newsfeed fill with comments, offered on the very day of this man’s death, from practicing Catholics on the center–to–rightish side of the Church aisle that seemed intended to remind everyone of his many theological errors. In some cases, the critiques were seeded into well-wishes for the repose of his soul (as distinguished from actual prayers). In one case, someone managed to include both a benediction and a malediction into a single sentence.
Perhaps you are wondering why I have not named this man. I have not done so because, for the purpose of this blog post, his name does not matter. He could be anyone. He could be any departed soul, a soul that was good in many ways and flawed in some. In his case though, he was also a priest, a priest who remained in good standing with the Church throughout his lifetime, and who remains a priest forever.
Not very many souls die to universal acclaim. Whenever anyone dies, he usually leaves behind friends, enemies, and frenemies. Even men and women who were eventually canonized saints of the Catholic Church are not exempt from this rule. Saints from that old grouch, St. Jerome, to the beloved spiritual father of millions, St. John Paul II, have had their imperfections and their detractors.
In a few cases, the deeds of some deceased souls were so heinous that the evil they did cannot be ignored, even on the day of their death. In many cases, unpacking a harmful legacy can wait anywhere from days, to months, to years following the death of that person. In most cases, especially with private individuals—known only to their families, friends, and God—the problematic aspects of their lives can be set aside for the most part, while the primary focus can be on whatever good they did.
All of these souls, no matter who they were or what they did, have one thing in common. They are in need of our help.
Devotion to the poor souls
From its very founding, the Catholic Church has exhorted Christians to pray for the poor souls in purgatory and led by example. St. Paul, in his second letter to St. Timothy, eulogized Onesiphorus and prayed for the repose of his soul:
May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus (2 Tim. 1:16–18).
All that we know of Onesiphorus is found in this remembrance of Paul’s, preserved in his epistle to Timothy. Onesiphorus took care of Paul, despite hardship and danger to himself; he served the Church at Ephesus. For all that we know now, he may also have been hot-tempered or heedless of the family he left behind. But Paul says nothing of that, because a letter that would be read aloud to the churches Timothy served was not the place for recalling a dead man’s faults.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we find this about the Church’s concern for poor souls:
This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in sacred Scripture: "Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin" [cf. 2 Macc. 12:45]. From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God (CCC 1032).
Most recently, the Church’s teaching on purgatory was included in Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi, which was dedicated to the theme of Christian hope.
The souls of the departed can . . . receive "solace and refreshment" through the Eucharist, prayer, and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude, or even a request for pardon? (48).
Care for the poor souls
The Church lists some basic ways in which we can help the poor souls reach their final destination, which is the beatific vision: the Mass, personal prayer, almsgiving and acts of charity. Perhaps we can expand on this bare outline and look at what each of us could do for the poor souls in practical terms.
The Mass. Catholics have the opportunity to have a funeral Mass offered for the repose of the soul of a family member when that person dies. The apologists at Catholic Answers sometimes get questions from Catholics wanting to know if a funeral Mass is required. No, a funeral Mass is not required; in the absence of a priest, a funeral liturgy without a Mass could be presided at by a deacon or another person authorized to act as a presider. But if a funeral Mass is possible, it would be foolish for a Catholic refuse one.
Many people seem to have the idea that a funeral Mass is a celebration of the life of the deceased. Not so. A funeral Mass is primarily the eucharistic sacrifice offered for the repose of that person’s soul. One of the reasons most bishops are reluctant to deny any Catholic a funeral Mass, no matter how far that person has fallen from the ideals of the Catholic faith, is precisely because to do so denies that person the most efficacious means of speeding up his journey to full union with God.
While funeral Masses are, generally speaking, reserved for Catholics, a memorial Mass can be offered for anyone—Catholic, non-Catholic, non-Christian, or non-theist. For a small donation to your local parish, to a religious community, or to a national apostolate (e.g., the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy), memorial Masses can be offered for a deceased soul. Most parishes offer communal Masses for the dead in November, the month the Church sets aside for remembrance of the dead. Some religious communities offer “enrollments,” which is a means of allowing deceased souls to share the benefits of the prayers and Masses of that community, now and in the future. Many apostolates, including Catholic Answers, will remember the deceased loved ones of benefactors at Masses the apostolates have offered.
Personal prayer. St. Francis de Sales once lamented, “Alas! We do not sufficiently remember our dear departed; their memory seems to perish with the sound of the funeral bells.”
It may be that St. Francis was guilty of a bit of hyperbole. Many do remember deceased loved ones long after their funerals. But the saint’s basic point is that we do not remember to pray for the deceased. If we loved someone, we may grieve for that person, tell stories of that person’s life, treasure mementos we have from that person—but it may be that we do not pray as often as we might for him. And if we disliked that person, we all the more easily neglect to pray for him.
One method I’ve found to pray for the deceased on a regular basis is to remember them at Mass. I always pray for deceased loved ones during the consecration, and I will also ask their intercession. I almost always will receive Communion for a deceased loved one. If I know of someone who has recently died, I will either substitute in that person during my next Communion or “split” my Communion prayers for the loved one and for the recently deceased—prayer for one during the reception of the host, and prayer for the other during reception of the precious blood. Keeping track of birthdays or anniversaries of deceased family and friends is a handy way not to forget to offer up prayers for that person at least once a year.
If the deceased is someone you had reason to dislike, you are not absolved of your duty to pray for him. But when the memory of that person is painful, it may be a difficult obligation to shoulder. In her book My Peace I Give You, Dawn Eden shares a suggestion she once received for how to pray for those who have caused you harm: Give over the person who harmed you to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “then, pray often for Mary’s intentions.”
Acts of charity. The Church traditionally uses the word almsgiving for money offered to the poor on behalf of the deceased. Certainly, giving money to the poor in honor of a poor soul is meritorious for that poor soul. You could give alms to your local food pantry, homeless shelter, or even (where possible and when safe) to needy individuals you meet on the street. This aspect of suffrage for the dead should not be neglected.
But almsgiving may also have a spiritual dimension, and could include acts of charity offered up directly for poor souls. For example, when someone you dislike dies, you can mortify yourself against any temptation you may have to criticize that person by either practicing silence or by finding something positive or uplifting to say about that person. When I saw the news that the gentleman I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post had died, I wanted to find something to say about him that would honor his memory. After some thought, I linked to his obituary on my Facebook page and wrote this comment:
He died on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood" (1 Cor. 13:12).
The gratitude of the poor souls
While the Church does not emphasize as strongly the intercession of the poor souls as it does the intercession of the saints in heaven, the Church does affirm that poor souls can intercede for us:
In the communion of saints, "a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory, and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things" (CCC 1475).
Popular treatments of purgatory, such as Purgatory Explained by Fr. F.X. Schouppe, S.J., emphasize the intercession of the poor souls as a means of ginning up prayers for them. Fr. Schouppe’s book is stuffed with stories of grateful poor souls who find homes for penniless servant girls and rescue abandoned children.
By contrast, in nearly twenty years of devotion to poor souls, only rarely have I sensed any kind of personal acknowledgment from the poor souls for prayers and sacrifices offered for them. So, I cannot and will not promise you that you will receive temporal benefits in return for your prayers and other suffrages for souls. You might, you might not. What we do for souls though is largely a fruit of Christian hope.
No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: In what I think, say, do, and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others, for better and for worse.
So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification (Spe Salvi 48).