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Friday 29 May 2015

REQUIEM MASS - The Communion of Saints and Prayer for the Dead in Scripture, Church Teaching, Liturgy and Practice

“For that is not first, says he, which is spiritual, 
but that which is natural, then that which is spiritual.”      
1 Corinthians 15:46

When we consider the Funeral liturgy of the Church for which a Requiem Mass is the norm, we need to take into account the Church's magisterial teaching about the "Last Things" i.e.  Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. 

In addition we consider Purgatory or, as it is known in the Anglican Patrimony, "The Intermediate State" i.e. the state in which the lingering wounds and effects of sins which have already been forgiven are finally purged. The Eastern Church calls this the "final purification of the "final thesis."  Purification from the temporal effects of sin is necessary because, as we all know, though a sin or offence may be forgiven there are often continuing temporal effects (effects in time and space).  For example, though God and a parent may forgive the drunk driver who killed their child, the negative temporal effects of this sin continue in the lives of many apart from the actual forgiveness, penance and contrition of the sinner.

This understanding of sin, of course, raises the matter of prayer for the dead, the intercession of the saints, indulgences and other matters relating to our journey to be finally and completely with God.

So, let us consider the sources for requiems and prayers for the dead:

A)  The Bible

For over 3000 years, prayers for the dead have formed an essential part of  Jewish worship based upon the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).  The prayers offered on behalf of the deceased were familiar to and, no doubt, used by Jesus: Recitation of Psalms and reciting a thrice daily communal prayer Kaddish which actually means "Sanctification" (or "Prayer of Making Holy").  The form contains the following passage: "Have mercy upon him; pardon all his transgressions . . . Shelter his soul in the shadow of Thy wings. Make known to him the path of life."
The Last Judgement
Church of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi or Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, Syria (c. 11th century)
Another Hebrew prayer which has informed Christian practice and which Jesus may himself have prayed:  “God, filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens' heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of Thy Shechinah, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest.  May Thou who art the source of mercy shelter them beneath Thy wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace.  And let us say: Amen.”

The sayings of Jesus recorded in the New Testament are most naturally interpreted as containing an implicit understanding of prayer for the dead and are at the basis of Christian teaching about the Communion of Saints i.e. the communion in prayer of the living with the dead.

Jesus promises forgiveness for all sins that we commit, except the sin against the Holy Spirit, which "shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come." (Matthew 12:31-32).

May sins be forgiven in the world to come then, as implied in Jesus' words? 

Jesus’ hearers clearly believed in this possibility. Had Jesus wished to deny it, he would hardly have used a form of expression that they would naturally take to be an admission of their belief in prayer for the dead. Precisely the same argument applies to the words of Jesus regarding the debtor who is cast into prison, from which he shall not go out until he has “paid the last farthing” (Luke 12:59).

St. Paul's Epistles also bear directly on the question of prayers for the dead. 1 Corinthians 15:29 is an argument for prayer for the dead. 

St. Paul argues in favour of the resurrection: "Otherwise what shall they do that are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptized for them?" Assuming that the practice here referred to, baptism for the dead, was superstitious, the passage furnishes historical evidence of the prevalent belief in the efficacy of prayer for the dead. 

The Apostle Paul's reserve in not directly disapproving of this action on behalf of the dead is more intelligible if we see that he recognized the truth of the principle of prayer for the departed.  This form of prayer was something to which the Apostle gave his tacit approval; not to the baptism of the dead but to the understanding that prayer for the dead was possible.

In his Second Epistle to Timothy (1:16-18; 4:19) St. Paul speaks of Onesiphorus in a way that obviously implies that the latter was already dead: "The Lord give mercy to the house of Onesiphorus" — to a family in need of consolation. Then, after mention of the loyal service he gave to the imprisoned Apostle Paul in Rome, comes the prayer for Onesiphorus himself, "The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day" (the day of judgment). Finally, in the salutation, "the household of Onesiphorus" is mentioned once more, without mention of the man himself who was dead and had been prayed for by St. Paul himself.

B)  Objections by some Protestants

Only in the sixteenth century were texts of the Old Testament and the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the New used to oppose the universal practice of prayer for the dead. Most modern commentators whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, consider these dated objections to be irrelevant in light of history and of the fact that objections to abuses from 400 years ago have been answered by reform and development.

The saying of Ecclesiastes 11: 3 for instance, "if the tree fall to the south, or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall, there shall it be", even if it is understood as the fate of the soul after death, it can mean nothing more than what Catholic teaching affirms, that the final issue — salvation or damnation — is determined irrevocably at death.  Christian prayer for the dead is not for those who have ultimately rejected God. Rather, it is prayer for those who are Christians but not perfect at the time of death i.e. most of us.

The imagery of the parable of Lazarus is too uncertain to be made the basis of Christian teaching in the face of the universal Christian practice of 15 centuries which was questioned only 450 years ago at the Protestant Reformation.  Can the millions of Christians (the vast majority) until that time have been wrong?

Last Judgement - Fra Angelico

C)  Inscriptions on Early Christian Gravestones

The inscriptions in the Roman Catacombs range in date from the first century (the earliest dated is from A.D. 71) to the early part of the fifth. Many inscriptions are simple (PAX, IN PACE, etc.) frequently amplified into prayers (PAX TIBI, etc.). The benefits most frequently prayed for are: peace, the good (i.e. eternal salvation), light, refreshment, life, eternal life, union with God, with Christ, and with the angels and saints — e.g. PAX (TIBI, VOBIS, SPIRITUI TUO, IN ÆTERNUM, TIBI CUM ANGELIS, CUM SANCTIS); SPIRITUS TUUS IN BONO (SIT, VIVAT, QUIESCAT); ÆTERNA LUX TIBI; IN REFREGERIO ESTO; SPIRITUM IN REFRIGERIUM SUSCIPIAT DOMINUS; DEUS TIBI REFRIGERET; VIVAS, VIVATIS (IN DEO, IN [Chi-Rho] IN SPIRITO SANCTO, IN PACE, IN ÆTERNO, INTER SANCTOS, CUM MARTYRIBUS).  For detailed references see Kirsch, "Die Acclamationen", pp. 9-29; Cabrol and Leclercq, "Monumenta Liturgica" (Paris, 1902), I, pp. ci-cvi, cxxxix, etc.

Again there are prayers of a formal character, in which survivors address their petitions directly to God the Father, or to Christ. The benefits prayed for are those already mentioned, with the addition sometimes of liberation from sin. Some of these early prayers read like excepts from the liturgy: e.g. SET PATER OMNIPOTENS, ORO, MISERERE LABORUM TANTORUM, MISERE(re) ANIMAE NON DIG(na) FERENTIS (De Rossi, Inscript. Christ., II a, p. ix).

Sometimes the writers of the epitaphs request visitors to pray for the deceased: e.g. QUI LEGIS, ORA PRO EO – Whoever reads this, pray for me. (Corpus Inscript. Lat., X, n. 3312). Sometimes again the dead themselves ask for prayers, as in the well-known Greek epitaph of Abercius (see INSCRIPTION OF ABERCIUS).  Christian people from the very beginning often visited the tombs to pray for the dead, and sometimes even inscribed a prayer on the monument. This also clear from a variety of indications (see examples in De Rossi, "Roma Sotteranea", II, p. 15).

In a word, the witness of the early Christian monuments in favour of prayer for the dead is so overwhelming that no serious historian any longer denies that the practice and the belief which the practice implies were universal in the early Christian community. There was no break of continuity in this respect between Judaism and Christianity and none until the Protestant Reformation.

D)  Early worship/ liturgies

The testimony of the early liturgies is in harmony with that of the monuments. Nestorian and Monophysite as well as Catholic liturgies in the Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic languages as well as those in Greek and Latin — all contain the commemoration of the faithful departed at the Eucharist, with a prayer for peace, light, refreshment and the like, and in many cases expressly for the remission of sins.

The following, from the Syriac Liturgy of St. James, is a typical example: "we commemorate all the faithful dead who have died in the true faith . . . We ask, we entreat, we pray Christ our God, who took their souls and spirits to Himself, that by His many compassions He will make them worthy of the pardon of their faults and the remission of their sins" (Syr. Lit. S. Jacobi, ed. Hammond, p. 75).

E)  Early Christian Sermons and Literature

Turning to early literary sources, we find evidence in the apocryphal "Acta Joannis", composed about A.D. 160-170, that at that time yearly anniversaries of the dead were commemorated by the celebration of the Holy Eucharist (Lipsius and Bonnet, "Acta Apost. Apocr.", I, 186). The same fact is witnessed by the "Canons of Hippolytus" (Ed. Achelis, p. 106), by Tertullian (De Cor. Mil., iii, P.L., II, 79), and by many later writers.

+ Tertullian (A.D. 155 – 240) also testifies to the regularity of the practice of praying privately for the dead (De Monogam., x, P.L., II, 942); and of the host of later authorities that may be cited, both for public and private prayers, we must be content to refer to but a few.

+ St. Cyprian (A.D. 200 – 251) writes to Cornelius that their mutual prayers and good offices ought to be continued after either should be called away by death (Ep. lvii, P.L., III, 830 sq.).

+ St. Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 340 – 397)  In his funeral oration for his brother Satyrus, St. Ambrose, an early bishop of Milan and mentor of St. Augustine of Hippo, beseeches God to accept propitiously his "brotherly service of priestly sacrifice" (fraternum munus, sacrificium sacerdotis) for the deceased ("De Excessu Satyri fr.", I, 80, P.L., XVI, 1315).  Ambrose says that he will let no day or night go past without remembering the dead in his prayers and at the altar ("De Obitu Valent.", 78, ibid., 1381).  

+ St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) who is widely quoted by Luther, Calvin and other Protestants, speaks of prayers for the dead: "The universal Church observes this law, handed down from the Fathers [Apostles and early bishops], that prayers should be offered for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ.” (Sermon clxxii, 2, P.L., XXXVIII, 936).

+ St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 449-407) - Universally acknowledged as a pastor and teacher of the early Church by both Catholics and Protestants.

HOMILY 41 by St. John Chrysostom on 1 Corinthians 15:46
“For that is not first, says he, which is spiritual, but that which is natural, then that which is spiritual.”

“For not unmeaningly have these things been devised, nor do we in vain make mention of the departed in the course of the divine mysteries [Eucharist], and approach God in their behalf, beseeching the Lamb Who is before us, Who takes away the sin of the world—not in vain, but that some refreshment may thereby ensue to them.

Not in vain does he that stands by the altar cry out when the tremendous mysteries are celebrated, For all that have fallen asleep in Christ, and for those who perform commemorations in their behalf.  For if there were no commemorations for them, these things would not have been spoken: since our service is not a mere stage show, God forbid!  Yea, it is by the ordinance of the Spirit that these things are done.

Let us then give them aid and perform commemoration for them. For if the children of Job were purged by the sacrifice of their father [Job 1:5], why do you doubt that when we too offer for the departed, some consolation arises to them? Since God is wont to grant the petitions of those who ask for others. And this Paul signified saying, that in a manifold Person your gift towards us bestowed by many may be acknowledged with thanksgiving on your behalf. (2 Corinthians 1:11)

Let us not then be weary in giving aid to the departed, both by offering on their behalf and obtaining prayers for them: for the common Expiation of the world is even before us. Therefore with boldness do we then entreat for the whole world, and name their names with those of martyrs, of confessors, of priests. For in truth one body are we all, though some members are more glorious than others; and it is possible from every source to gather pardon for them, from our prayers . . .

"The Christian meaning of death is revealed in the light of the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ in whom resides our only hope. The Christian who dies in Christ Jesus is 'away from the body and at home with the Lord' (2 Cor 5:8)."
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1681


Recognizing, as we must, that few are without stain of sin at their time of death, Christians have, over 2,000 years, prayed for departed family and friends. Given the overwhelming evidence, there is no reasonable challenge to the fact that the early and continuing practice and teaching of the Christian Church was to encourage prayer for the dead. On the contrary, as we have seen, the presumption in its favour is based upon all kinds of evidence.

Sixteenth century Protestant objections, in spite of 1,500 years of uninterrupted Christian prayer for the dead, are based upon political objections and were forwarded in reaction to certain abuses in the Church which no longer exist e.g. the selling of Indulgences.

John Wesley (1703-1791) taught prayer for the dead. (Holden, H. W. (1872). John Wesley in Company with High Churchmen. London: J. Hodges. p. 84).  In the late nineteenth century in response to overwhelming pastoral need, the Anglican Communion widely promoted prayers for the dead as part of the official worship if the Church. This has increased since World War I.  Other Protestant bodies have done likewise and so there is growing convergence in favour of prayer for the dead, once again, after the Reformation breach.

The vast majority of Christians today, as in the first 15 centuries since the Resurrection of Jesus,  join with the multitude who have gone before us in faith –  “so great a cloud of witnesses” – in affirming the teaching of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds regarding the Communion of Saints. In so doing, we are united in prayer with those both living and dead as we pray for those we love but see no longer.

                                                                                          Compiled by J. L. Hodgins from various sources

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