ARCHBISHOP LUCAS: Praying for the dead is an important work of mercy
November 19, 2020
In this week’s discussion, Archbishop George J. Lucas and communications manager David Hazen discuss the importance of praying for the dead, especially during the month of November. The archbishop explains that because of the resurrection of Jesus and the hope we have in him, this is not a gloomy practice. It also helps us to think about the world beyond this one, a consideration to which our current culture doesn’t necessarily lend itself.
Q: November is referred to in the Church as the “Month of the Dead,” a time when we pray especially for the deceased. Why does the Church emphasize this practice as a work of mercy?
A work of mercy is something that we perform for someone who is in need, and it is normally offered for a person who cannot fulfill that need for themselves. We feed the hungry, we visit the sick, we visit those in prison.
We talk about burying the dead as in some way the last act of mercy; that is obviously something that people cannot do for themselves. Out of love and respect for them, we give them proper Christian burial and ask God’s mercy upon them at that moment. But we understand it is not really the last thing we can do. We can continue to pray for them. And just as we have cared about our loved ones in this world, we continue to care about them in the next. We want for them what God wants for them: abundant life with their sins forgiven.
It has been part of our tradition from the beginning of the Church that our prayers somehow build people up and strengthen them for the transition into eternity, however that takes place. We’ve never been there, so we do not know exactly what it is or how it works. But if we think about our experience in this world and how companionship and friendship build us up, we realize those are very important gifts.
In a similar way, our prayers accompany those who have died. Our Catholic faith tells us that those relationships are changed, but they are not severed. And the care that we extend to the dead in the prayers and sacrifices we offer for them is somehow effective in God’s providence, just as it is in this world.
Q: So, Christ invites us to make those sacrifices and prayers, allowing us to participate in the work of salvation of other souls after they have died. That’s something worth meditating on more.
Yes, isn’t that a great thing to think of?
When we are baptized, God claims us as his sons and daughters. He announces his plan for us that we live forever. God puts his claim on us and offers us an inheritance if we will receive it, if we don’t squander it by a sinful life and then being unwilling to turn back. So, we face all of this with great hope and great confidence in the power of the cross of Christ, the redeeming power of his blood, in the promises of the Father, the animating gifts of the Holy Spirit that have helped this person along their way and that help us.
In our faith we have “layers” of truth – things that are true at the same time, even if they seem paradoxical. Salvation depends absolutely on God’s favor and on the power of Jesus Christ. But we get to participate in it at the Lord’s invitation. Jesus has established the Church so that there is this means of salvation that we experience in practical ways, and that we are part of with other people. So, we should do our part. We are invited to participate in something that is powerful and merciful.
Q: This month particularly keeps death and eternity at the top of our minds. As we practice this work of mercy and as we think of people who have died, we recognize we all are called to the same destiny. How do you see this affecting our relationship with the living?
Intercession is an important part of our life. Jesus asks us to show mercy to people in this world in practical ways. We should pray for our brothers and sisters here. We should pray for our country and pray for people in need. But we should also look for ways to get engaged in the work of mercy and of building up the body of Christ, building up the human community.
It is coincidental (or rather providential) that elections often fall in November, when our minds are turned to the next world. And it is good that they are because we should always be thinking about our real destiny, that we are not going to live forever in this world.
The decisions that we make here reverberate into eternity. The people we interact with, with whom we may disagree, but with whom we must live and work here in our human communities – each one of those persons has been created by God to live forever. If that is what God wants for them, that is what I should want for them too.
Because of the resurrection of Jesus and because of the hope that we have in him, praying for the dead is not a morose practice for us, it is not a gloomy thing. We miss the people who were close to us in this world; that’s a normal and very good thing.
But at the same time, it helps us to think about the world beyond this world. Our current culture doesn’t necessarily lend itself to that. Surveys are conducted about what people believe, and there are a lot of people of every age now, younger people particularly, who do not necessarily advert to another world. They do not imagine or have a sense of something beyond what they are experiencing today.
This is our mission field. We are sent into the world to proclaim the whole truth of God’s loving plan for us, which we experience first in this world. But there is much more to come. And as we think about the recent elections and the important work that we need to do here, we know Jesus wants us to be engaged and to have an influence for good, but that things will not ultimately be settled here. We do not look to any president or governor or senator or mayor for our salvation, for the ultimate remedy for all that is broken and hurting in the human family.
People of faith have a huge responsibility. It is bigger than government. And sadly, as I think we witnessed in this election cycle, we can be tempted to surrender the responsibility to build here a kingdom of justice, love and peace. Scripture reminds us that that is the responsibility of people of faith. We have all kinds of tools to do that and government can be one of those, but there are other ways too, that are more potent if we’ll use them. We started out talking about mercy. If those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ are really known as people of mercy, who desire to bring the mercy of God to a hurting and broken world, we can have a different way of tackling problems and challenges and of approaching public life beyond politics.
So, it is a challenging time, of course. We certainly want to pray – pray for the dead, for the living and especially for those who have been chosen to serve us in public office. We want people with such responsibilities to succeed according to God’s plan for them and for all of us.
Q: Yes, that is a totally different horizon against which to look at the world.
The horizon is a good image. And as we look forward to the feast of Christ the King at the end of the month, we should have the sense that he offers us something great and glorious. We see it coming, but we cannot see all of his plan now or know all the glory that awaits beyond this life.