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Prayer for the Dead

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, generating grace for the souls in Purgatory

As we approach November – the Month of the Holy Souls – we are reminded to pray for the dead lest we forget to do so during the rest of the year. This is a particularly Catholic practice, notably partially copied by Protestants following the magnitude of deaths during the First World War (cf: Fr Schofield, British Catholics and the Great War).

As the following two articles amply demonstrate, there cannot be too many prayers for the departed.

As such, for the first time in recent memory, the Guild is arranging two Requiem Masses in London this year:

  • Monday 8 November, 1830hrs, Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane. This will be in the Traditional Latin Rite, probably known to the majority of Guild members through its 107 year history.

  • Tuesday 9 November, 1500hrs, Westminster Cathedral.

Any member can of course arrange further local Masses to maximise the amount of grace obtained for Catholic police officers and staff departed, especially Guild members. The Guild in London hopes to arrange multiple Masses around London for key events during 2022 to maximise the grace for members and policing. Any London member who would like to coordinate additional Masses should speak to the regional committee.

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Whilst still of this earth, the living faithful are able to entertain supernatural relationships with the deceased faithful whose souls are in purgatory. We are able to help these souls by means of our intercession before God, not only through prayer, but also by obtaining indulgences, giving alms and performing other works of piety, but most of all by offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for them.

The Second General Council of Lyon (1274) and the Council of Florence in its Decretum pro Graecis of 1439, defined that "the suffrages of the living faithful, in particular the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, alms and other works of piety which the faithful, in accordance with the institutions of the Church, customarily offer for one another, serve to ease the suffering of souls in purgatory".

Against the Protestants, the Council of Trent defined that purgatory does exist and that "the souls who are detained there are rescued by the prayers of the faithful, especially by the Holy Sacrifice of the altar".

In the Bible, the 2nd Book of the Maccabees (XII, 42-46) shows that in the last centuries of Judaism there was already a conviction that those who had died in sin could be helped through prayer and expiatory sacrifices. The Church received this belief from the Synagogue, and included it in its apostolic teaching.

Speaking of the day of Judgment, Saint Paul, in his second epistle to Timothy, wishes God's mercy to his faithful auxiliary and helper Onésiphorus, recently deceased: "May the Lord grant him to find mercy with the Lord on that day" (II Tim., I, 18).

There is abundant evidence of the Church’s custom in praying for and encouraging prayers for the faithful departed. Among the literary monuments of antiquity, the Acta Pauli et Theclae (apocryphal writing from the end of the 2nd century) attest to the Christian custom of praying for the dead: the late Falconilla asks for the Thelcla’s prayers. "And behold, the daughter of Trifina, who was dead, appeared to her mother and said: Mother, let the young woman Thecla be reputed by you as your daughter in my place, and ask her to pray for me, that I may be translated to a state of the just." Thecla then makes this prayer: "O Lord God of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High, grant that her daughter Falconilla may live forever."

At the beginning of the 3rd century, Tertullian recommended not only prayer for the deceased, but also the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice on the anniversary of their death, in his works: De monogamia 10, De corona militis 3 and De exhortatione castitatis 11.

In the 4th century, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem mentions, in his description of the Mass, prayer for all the dead after the Consecration and attributes to it the effect of reconciling the deceased with God (Mystagogical Catechesis, V, 9). Finally, Saint John Chrysostom, in his Homily on the Epistle to Philemon (III, 4) and Saint Augustine, in his Enchiridionand in a sermon, attest that the deceased can also be helped by alms. However, Saint Augustine, in his De cura pro mortuis gerenda (I, 3) and in the Confessions (IX, 11-13) points out that prayers do not relieve all the deceased, but only those who have lived in such a way that prayers can be useful to them after death.

Finally, inscriptions on ancient Christian tombs from the 2nd and 3rd centuries frequently contain requests for prayers for the dead, or a prayer for peace, refreshment and life in God or in Christ. The inscription of Abercius of Hierapolis (before 216) kept at the Lateran Museum thus reads: "May your brother in faith who reads these lines say a prayer for Abercius."

Our prayers for the poor souls act in such a way that the propitiatory value of our good works is offered to God in place of the temporal punishments due to the sins for which the poor souls have yet to atone. Our prayers obtain the total or partial remission of their judiciary sentence. While painful reparation for sin creates a right to God's justice, prayer looks to His mercy.

We are able to relieve the poor souls thanks to the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ through grace and charity. Hence the state of grace is a prerequisite for the vicarious efficacy of our good works which we wish to offer for the Holy Souls. The most effective of all the prayers remains the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the funeral prayers addressed to God in the name of the Church.

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November then is dedicated to prayers for our departed brethren. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains the principle of the doctrine relating to prayers and Masses for the deceased: "All the faithful in a state of grace are united by charity and are members of one body, that of the Church. However, in an organization, each member is helped by others, and therefore each Christian can be helped by the merits of others."

Charity compels us to love God above all things and to love our neighbour as ourselves. The order of charity would have us to first pray for our most helpless brethren, namely the suffering souls in Purgatory. The Holy Trinity dwells in them. Jesus lives in them intimately through the divine life of grace they share with Him. We must, therefore, love them as our neighbour, especially since some are from our earthly family, and we have special duties of charity towards the souls of our deceased family members.

We should not forget that the souls in Purgatory can do nothing for themselves. They rely on us for their eventual release from their toil and pain. It takes but a single prayer to allay their sufferings. God is impatient to bring them to Himself, and yet He relies in great measure on our prayers to speed their entrance to heaven.

Father Faber notes also that by working for these suffering souls we do not work in vain, because we know our prayers will be heard. The Holy Souls will indeed enter heaven, as we request. What we do for them is never lost.

During the month of November, we must rekindle in our hearts real compassion for the souls of Purgatory; we must help them by praying for them, by having Masses celebrated for them, by accepting for them our daily cross. As our Lord taught us: "Blessed are the merciful, for they too will obtain mercy".


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