Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
November 1, 2013
After Constantine gave word that he was going to bury the Vatican necropolis to build the first Basilica to St. Peter around 320, pagan families began moving their dead out, so that they could continue their practice of having refrigeria (picnics) with their deceased loved ones.
At the same time as, Christians formed a procession in the opposite direction moving their loved ones in.
The reason why was shown in an inscription a Christian left in the mausoleum of Valerius Herma that I used to ponder with pilgrims during my years as a guide to the Vatican excavations.
“Petrus, rogat Christus, pro sanctis hominibus chrestianis [ad] corpus tuum sepultis,” someone wrote with charcoal in flawed Latin. “Peter, pray to Christ for the holy Christian men and women buried near your body.”
Discovered during the excavations that began in 1939, the inscription confirmed not only that Christians were bringing their dead in to inter them as close as possible to St. Peter, but that they believed that prayers for the dead were so important that they would even place their loves ones in what would become an inaccessible subterranean burial ground in order best to assure those prayers.
The important thing to notice about the inscription is not the hope for “geographical nepotism,” as if St. Peter would take the command to “love your neighbor” so seriously as to give special predilection to those whose tombs abutted his. It’s rather the evidence of the perennial Christian practice of praying for the dead.
There is no reason to pray for loved ones, I would tell the pilgrims, if we think that they are already in heaven. Likewise the early Christians never believed that there would be a furlough from hell. If they were praying for the dead and making such an effort to ask St. Peter to do the same, it was because they believed that there was a good chance their loved ones were neither in heaven nor in hell but in a place where prayers were needed.
It would take a few centuries for the word “purgatory” (place of cleansing) to develop, but long before the word came into vogue, the practice of praying for the dead and the underlying belief in its importance was very much practiced by faithful Christians.
Praying for deceased loved ones is just as important today as it was in the early Church. The same love that the early Roman Catholics to bury their loved ones as close as possible to Peter should lead all of us to draw as close as possible to Christ on the altar to pray for ours.
To pray for the dead is not just a spiritual work of mercy but sweet response of love.
Tomorrow we celebrate the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, popularly known as All Souls’ Day, when Catholics convene to pray for our deceased loved ones and for all who have died.
We come together to pray for them because, except for a baptized baby who died in infancy or a canonized saint, we simply don’t know the state of our loved ones after death.
Jesus told us emphatically not to judge, and this means not only not to condemn to hell someone we thought was evil but also not to place in heaven someone we thought good, for only God sees the heart.
As so on All Souls Day and throughout the month of November, we pray for those who lived, to our eyes, a good and holy life, who cared for Christ in the hungry and poor, who died with the sacraments. We also pray for those who lived, by human impressions, a life far from God, his sacraments and commandments, and who may have died in objectively sinful circumstances. We pray for them all, entrusting them to God’s mercy, knowing that in the communion of saints, our prayers and good deeds can in fact help them.
On All Souls’ Day we pray for them in the most powerful way any human being can: at Mass, entering into Christ’s prayer from the Upper Room and the Cross that made salvation possible. While we explicitly pray for the dead in every Eucharistic Prayer, on All Souls Day and throughout November we’re called to pray this memento with special preparation, recollection and devotion.
I’m always moved by the devotion of some Catholics to this work of mercy and love of praying for deceased family members and friends, themselves and others. Many Catholics regularly have Masses said for deceased loved ones, and some Catholics routinely have Masses offered for forgotten souls in Purgatory. Last week I received word that a recently deceased parishioner left as the first item in his will money to have 200 Masses said for him and his deceased wife — a profoundly humble, Catholic and wise act.
But I’ve also seen what I think can only be called a growing spiritual negligence on the part of many other Catholics. Perhaps because they mistakenly presume — contrary to Christ’s words in the Gospel and the teaching of the Church — that everyone who dies automatically goes to a “better place,” they seem never to pray for loved ones. They sometimes don’t even have funerals for them, not to mention have month’s mind or other Masses offered. They’re nowhere to be found — either at Church or at a cemetery — on All Souls’ Day.
The way a Catholic lives the month of November often shows the vitality of the person’s faith and love.
Pope Benedict wrote in 2007, “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.”
All Souls’ Day is an occasion on which all Catholics are able to put into practice that “fundamental conviction” with a love that not even death can destroy.