Today is All Souls Day, the one day of the year when the universal Church prays and especially offers Mass for the dead. Not for those whom we believe to be in heaven; we prayed in honor of them yesterday. Nor for any who might be in hell—God forbid that any be there—since prayer for them would be useless. But rather, for those in what we call Purgatory, which is the condition of those who have died with temporal punishment for sin still due to them and which must be got rid of before their entrance into heaven.
Have you noticed, when reading obituary notices in our newspapers, how often it is announced as if it were a certainty that So-and-So went to heaven two days ago or last week? Even our Popes don’t make claims like that. The Popes canonize certain people, that is, they declare that those people are in heaven. But they don’t tell us that they entered heaven on this or that day and date. What the well-meaning but probably mistaken obituary notices mean is that So-and-So died two days ago or last week, and they then presume—in an unwarranted fashion—that the soul of the dead person entered heaven at the moment of death. What is being said is this: I know that that person died without any guilt still to be expiated and Uncle Bill went to heaven the moment he died. And of course, we have no way of knowing that, and are very unwise to assume it. I don’t want ANYONE assuming that I am in heaven as soon as I die. I would much rather be prayed for!
The Second Book of Maccabees tells us that Judas Maccabeus had prayers offered for the dead. “In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way . . . for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.” (2 Macc. 2:44). Unfortunately, our Protestant brothers and sisters have dropped the books of Maccabees from the Bible and therefore don’t believe in the existence of Purgatory nor the value of praying for the dead. But in our holy faith, there is no doubt of these things, and therefore Catholicism prays for the dead constantly. It is quite likely that we will, some day, benefit by, and be very grateful for, the prayers offered for us after our own death by individuals or by the entire Church in her constant prayers for the dead. If you’d like to know more about the doctrine of Purgatory, I refer you to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1030 to 1032.
So this is the special day, but by no means the only day, for us to pray for the dead. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. Requiescant in pace: may they rest in peace. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.