The practice of offering the holy Mass for the repose of the soul of the deceased originates in the early church. The catechism teaches, “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" (No. 1032).
Praying for the repose of the souls of the deceased is rooted in the Old Testament. Judas Maccabees offered prayers and sacrifices for the Jewish soldiers who had died wearing pagan amulets, which were forbidden by the Torah. II Maccabees reads, “Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out" (12:43). Continuing, “(Judas Maccabees) took up a collection among all his soldiers, … which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus, he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from sin" (12:46).
In light of the saving work of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we believe that when a person dies, he faces his particular judgment and must render an account of his life. If that person has died fundamentally believing in God and in a state of grace, but with venial sins and the hurt caused by sin, then God in His divine love and mercy will first purify the soul. After this purification has been completed, the soul will have the holiness and purity needed to share in the beatific vision in heaven.
The faithful here on earth can help those souls undergoing purification. The Vatican Council II affirmed: “This sacred council accepts loyally the venerable faith of our ancestors in the living communion which exists between us and our brothers who are in the glory of heaven or who are yet being purified after their death." (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," No. 51). Therefore, just as we pray for each other and share each other’s burdens now, the faithful on earth can offer prayers and sacrifices to help the departed souls undergoing purification, and no better prayer could be offered than that of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical “Mirae Caritatis" (1902) beautifully elaborated this point and emphasized the connection between the communion of saints with the Mass: “The grace of mutual love among the living, strengthened and increased by the sacrament of the Eucharist, flows, especially by virtue of the sacrifice (of the Mass), to all who belong to the communion of saints. For the communion of saints is simply … the mutual sharing of help, atonement, prayers and benefits among the faithful, those already in the heavenly fatherland, those consigned to the purifying fire, and those still making their pilgrim way here on earth. These all form one city, whose head is Christ, and whose vital principle is love. Faith teaches that although the august sacrifice can be offered to God alone, it can nevertheless be celebrated in honor of the saints now reigning in heaven with God, who has crowned them, to obtain their intercession for us, and also, according to apostolic tradition, to wash away the stains of those brethren who died in the Lord but without yet being wholly purified." Therefore, the offering of Mass and other prayers or sacrifices for the intentions of the faithful departed are truly good and holy acts.
Please note that this belief not only has its origins in our Old Testament roots but also in the early history of the church. Inscriptions uncovered on tombs in the Roman catacombs of the second century evidence this practice. For example, the epitaph on the tomb of Abercius, bishop of Hieropolis in Phrygia (d. 180), begs for prayers for the repose of his soul. Tertullian in 211 attested to observing the anniversary of death of the faithful departed with prayers. Moreover, the Canons of Hippolytus (c. 235), one of the earliest missals, explicitly mentions the offering of prayers for the dead during the Mass. The testimony of many of the church fathers also beautifully supports this belief: For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), in one of his many catechetical discourses, explained how at Mass both the living and dead are remembered, and how the eucharistic sacrifice of Our Lord is of benefit to sinners, living and dead; and St. Ambrose (d. 397) 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."
When we face the death of someone, even a person who is not Catholic, to have a Mass offered for the repose of his soul and to offer our prayers are more beneficial and comforting than any other sympathy card or bouquet of flowers. Most importantly, we always should remember our own dearly departed loved ones in the holy Mass and through our own prayers and sacrifices to help in their gaining eternal rest. Having just celebrated the feast of All Souls (Nov. 2), let us keep in our prayers all of our faithful departed.