Recently, I heard the news that a very holy person had died. My first reaction was to think that although this is sad for us on earth, she is finally free from her suffering and is with Jesus at last.
To be honest, this is often my initial reaction to the news of a death, even when the deceased person did not show outward signs of being a saint. Yet there is a danger in thinking this way, and I have to catch myself when I begin to do it. While it is right and good to hope that the dead are in heaven, when I presume that they are already there, that presumption keeps me from praying for them as fervently as I should. It comforts me, on earth, to believe this lovely idea, but how does it help the person who might be in purgatory in desperate need of prayers?
In the book Saint John Vianney: The Village Priest Who Fought God’s Battles, author Leon Cristiani tells the story of the death of Father Balley, a very holy priest who mentored Saint John Vianney. When only the two priests were left in the room, “the dying man gave his ‘dear son’ his parting counsels, and asked for his prayers.” Then Father Balley pulled out his instruments of penance—the discipline and hair shirt with which he had so often mortified his flesh—and gave them to John Mary with these words:
“Take these things, my poor child, and hide them. If these objects were found after my death, people would think I had sufficiently expiated my sins. And then they’d leave me in purgatory until the end of the world.”
This priest, of whom Saint John Vianney said he had never encountered a more beautiful soul, did not want anyone thinking he was going straight to heaven. If they had thought so, it surely would have comforted them, but it would not have assisted him in getting there. What he desired was that those mourning his death would perform a work of mercy for him: He wanted them to pray for his soul.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (958) says that the Church, “from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.” [LG 50; cf. 2 Macc 12:45] We are not called to simply trust that the dead are in heaven; we are called to give them our prayers so that they may arrive there quickly.
Saint Pio of Pietrelcina is another man whom people called a living saint. He bore the stigmata for fifty years and was steeped in supernatural visions and miraculous events throughout his entire life. Yet when he was on his death bed, as author Renzo Allegri recounts in the book Padre Pio: Man of Hope, Padre Pio said to the monk who was with him, “My son, if the Lord calls me tonight, ask all my brothers to forgive me for the trouble I’ve caused them. Ask them also to pray for my soul.”
I would imagine that on hearing the news of his death, Padre Pio’s brothers and spiritual children probably had the same initial reaction that I had to the death of the holy person in my life recently—“Thank God, his suffering is over and he is with Jesus now.” But Padre Pio wanted them to pray for his soul. Back then, he had not yet been canonized, and although there was every indication that he would go straight to heaven, he did not want anyone to presume it would happen.
In the wondrous generosity of the Lord’s unfathomable mercy, when we pray for the dead, it can also benefit us. “Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them,” the Catechism (958) says, “but also of making their intercession for us effective.” When we pray for them, they can pray for us.
Even though this mindset does not allow us to bask in the comforting thought of believing everyone who dies is already enjoying heaven’s blessings, this work of mercy can be comforting in other ways. Over the past several months, I have been reading biographies of several women who endured immense suffering in their lives. I feel so helpless when I read about what they endured and can’t go back in time to help them. Yet there is something very real that I can do for them. Although it has been years since they died, I can pray for their souls, for God is outside of time and I believe he will use all of our prayers at the moment they are needed, whether they were offered a hundred years ago or now.
Having the chance to pray for those who have died and knowing that my prayers will help them is a great comfort to me. I keep a written list of departed friends and relatives for whom I pray, and seeing their names gives me the consolation of keeping each beloved person fresh in my memory. It is not only a comfort but a privilege to know that there is something I can still do for them.
Praying for the dead is a simple yet powerful work of mercy. This Year of Mercy offers us the chance to renew our efforts to pray for those who have gone before us, that they may be freed from their sins and behold the beatific vision forever.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.