There’s no shortage of Catholic fundraising appeals in my daily mail. Many provide “Mass cards” that can be sent to someone mourning the loss of a loved one. For a small donation, the organization will offer Masses for the deceased. Over the past week I received three such mailings from an order of priests, prompting me to write about the grave importance (no pun intended) of praying for the dead.
I try to send Mass cards instead of sympathy cards as often as possible. Praying for the dead and comforting the sorrowful are among the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy. And, depending on whom your Mass card donation supports, you might also check off one or more of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy—from feeding the hungry to giving alms to the poor. Try doing all of that with a Hallmark® greeting card!
Recently, I attended a funeral home visitation for the Catholic parent of a Catholic acquaintance. The event was a celebration of a life well lived, and the emotions expressed were bittersweet: Mom was a wonderful woman who would be missed by all, but at least she was no longer suffering; she was in heaven now. I dropped my Mass card in the basket next to the guestbook and assured my friend of prayers for her mother. “Oh,” she smiled, “I don’t think she’ll need them. She had a direct flight!”
Many people these days share those sentiments, but the sobering reality is that the dead need our immediate and ongoing prayers—and the Mass is the highest, most effective prayer we can offer. In The Catechism Explained, a 19th century manual to help priests, teachers and parents teach the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, the author writes:
The holy souls cannot help themselves, since they can no longer do good works to satisfy for their sins. After death “the night cometh when no man can work” (John 9:4). Hence they must pay off their debt by enduring the pains which God has laid upon them. Yet we on earth can help to diminish their pains by Masses, by prayer and almsgiving….the holy sacrifice is of all things, most helpful to them.
In theory, virtually nobody goes straight to Heaven. St. John tells us in Apocalypse (21:27) that nothing impure will enter the pearly gates, and the Council of Trent deemed purgatory a necessary detour for the Heaven-bound. From The Catechism Explained:
The holy souls suffer in purgatory to expiate either their venial sins, or those mortal sins, which, though absolved, have not been completely atoned for.
Let that sink in. Our sins that were confessed on earth and absolved by a priest—sins for which we already did some measure of penance—may still require further reparation after death. We can reasonably assume that even canonized saints have spent at least some time in purgatory!
And purgatory is no frolic in the park. Its temporary captives are referred to by Holy Mother Church as “the poor souls” or the Church Suffering for a very good reason. Once again, from The Catechism Explained:
Apart from the duration, there is no distinction between the torments of hell and those of purgatory. “The same fire,” says St. Augustine, “burns the lost and the saved.” …. “All the tortures that one can conceive of in this world are,” says St. Cyril of Alexandria, “refreshing, compared with the least pain of purgatory.”
Literally, purgatory should be avoided like hell! But at best, we can hope to significantly shorten time spent there.
Which brings me back to those mailings I received last week from an order of priests offering Masses and prayers for the faithful departed. Each mailing carried a pocket-sized, laminated card imprinted with a poem entitled, “Safely Home”. Written as if by one’s deceased relative, it begins: “I am home in Heaven, dear ones; oh, so happy and so bright!” It proceeds to paint a rosy picture of this person passing into eternal bliss, where he or she awaits the day when we will most assuredly join them there. “Oh, the rapture of that meeting, Oh, the joy to see you come!” reads the last line.
Concerned that an order of Catholic priests would portray entry into Heaven as instantaneous and certain, I checked the cover letter. “Dear Pamela,” it said (emphasis mine), “You and I know the importance of praying for and supporting those mourning the loss of a loved one.” It goes on to explain how the enclosed Mass card “provides a loving and prayerful support to those left behind” without any mention of praying for the repose of the departed one’s soul. The Mass card itself states only that he or she will be “remembered daily” in the priests’ Masses and prayers “as long as the Grace of God is needed.” Does that mean forever, I wondered—or possibly never, presuming the loved one is already “safely home”?
If you get such mailings, toss them in the trash like I did. Many trustworthy alternatives exist that beautifully uphold authentic Catholic teaching on purgatory. A stipend of $10 will put a departed soul on your parish’s Mass intentions calendar, and you can notify the family with a personal card or note.
And while there’s no “get out of jail free” card for souls in purgatory, an ancient practice originating with Pope St. Gregory the Great can potentially reduce one’s time there to as little as 30 days. Based on legend, a deceased Benedictine monk appeared and requested 30 consecutive days of Masses to be offered for his soul. Upon completion of the Masses he reappeared, radiant and jubilant, signifying his release from purgatory. Gregorian Masses are available today from a number of individual priests and orders.
By all accounts, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most powerful and most necessary prayer for the dead—followed by special prayers and devotions for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, which I look forward to sharing with you in Part 2.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace, Amen.