People don't like to think of Purgatory - but praying for the dead is an important act of charity

This month of All Souls is a busy time. Many parishes will have had special requiem Masses or other liturgies where people are invited to pray for their departed loved ones. Often invitations are extended to the families of those who have died during the last year: it becomes an opportunity to support grieving families and show the Church’s care for them. Then there is the tradition of the blessing of graves, where many families turn out who are never normally seen in Church.

Despite all this activity and the emphasis on the November as a month to pray for the dead, I have become increasingly aware that there is some confusion about what it means to pray for the departed. It seems that many Catholics no longer think of Purgatory as a reality. I have sadly heard this misconception reinforced by homilies at funerals or during family reflections which seem to assume that the departed are already in heaven or that “Granny has just slipped through to the next room”.

I have had similar conversations with parishioners who will then go on to ask me to offer a Mass for their loved ones. What do they think that the Mass is being offered for if they don’t believe in Purgatory? It appears that in such instances what they are really seeking is a Mass to be offered as a memorial rather than as something which can assist the deceased in their journey to salvation. As a priest I think that I am doing one thing, whilst the loved ones are thinking that something completely different is occurring.

I have not heard anyone speak for a long time about the idea that praying for the dead is an act of charity. As a consequence, many of the All Souls Masses and liturgies seem to have shifted emphasis to caring for those who mourn – rather than helping the dead. This is also reflected the consumer mindset with which some families approach funeral planning (a phenomenon often reinforced by funeral directors). Of course we should seek to share Christ’s love with those who mourn, but this should always be within the context of the primary focus of praying for the dead.

Many people imagine Purgatory as a place of desolation, and do not want to contemplate the idea of their loved ones being there. Here our response should be gentle catechesis which helps the bereaved make sense of their situation. If Purgatory is a place where we are made ready for God’s Kingdom, then surely it must be a place where his grace and love is heightened. We cannot enter heaven without God’s love – so why do so many people imagine Purgatory as a harsh place where love is absent?

When I offer Masses for the dead I now aim to give a short explanation when I announce the intention at the start of Mass, and as part of the Prayers of the Faithful during Mass. Often the bereaved feel helpless and believe that there is nothing that they can do for their deceased loved ones. Having a sense of praying for the dead can actually bring comfort, give new focus and help in our work of supporting those who are mourn at this time. We have lost something precious and it would be good if we used this November to regain a sense of this important act of charity. As we are told in the Second Book of Maccabees (2:46), “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.”

May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

Fr Pittam is the author of Building the Kingdom in the Classroom: A School Chaplains Diary