Monday, 3 November 2008

Feast of All Souls

On purgatory and hope

My paternal grandmother was a Presbyterian, and I can still remember being utterly shocked attending her funeral many many years ago because there were no prayers offered for her soul. I went rather reluctantly, persuaded that someone had to, as my father was in hospital and unable to attend, and other family members were in short supply for various reasons.

But it had a brittle, fake feeling about it because to Calvinists, by the time of the funeral (and indeed obvious long before where you were headed), you were either in heaven or in hell, and there was no more that anyone could do for you. And as there was a fairly strong suspicion amongst most there that she hadn't gone straight to heaven, everyone was on edge. It certainly made the whole funeral rather a pointless process as far as I could see, and left me traumatised for quite some time afterwards until I worked out what to do about it, notwithstanding the sensibilities of my Calvinist indoctrinated father...

Dying a happy death

There are of course some happy few who go straight to heaven, having lived a holy life and died a holy death. St Benedict is the classic example of such a saint - he knew the day and time of his death in advance, received viaticum and then died while propped up between his monks in the chapel, praising God. We should pray every day for the grace of final perseverance and a happy death, of which St Benedict is the patron saint.

But the reality, as the Pope pointed out in Spe Salvi, is that happy death or not, most of us will not go straight to heaven, but will end up doing some time in purgatory along the way.

The Scriptural basis of purgatory

Purgatory is one of those doctrines that does have a strong Scriptural basis, as well as in early Christian (and pre-Christian Jewish) practice, but where the theological terminology and full implications of what Scripture says have only gradually been fully articulated. Cardinal Pell has a piece on this in yesterday's Tele, where he points to the famous texts about praying for the dead in 2 Maccabees, as well as the 'less explicit' references in 1 Corinthians and Matthew Chapter 12.

And in fact Archbishop Hart of Melbourne has also written a very nice exposition of the doctrine of purgatory, based on the Pope's last encyclical Spe Salvi, in the latest edition of Kairos, which expounds 1 Cor 3:12-15 and 1 John 1:9. The encyclical itself also points to the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) as a direct reference to an intermediate state between death and resurrection.

Praying for the dead

In the medieval period, the necessity of praying for the dead, our duty toward the Church Suffering, was fully realised. The literature of the period is filled with stories of the dead coming back to beg the living for masses and prayers to free them from the suffering they were undergoing in purgatory, and urge those still alive to live better lives so as to escape a similar fate!

Mourners would be hired for funerals, so that there would be more people to pray for the deceased; people signed up in advance to have the Office of the Dead and Masses said for their souls through monasteries and confraternities; and those who could contributed to or established chantries in Churches, hiring a priest to say masses for their soul on anniversaries etc.

The Reformation (aided by the Counter Reformation due to some, in my view, unfortunate decrees of the Council of Trent) destroyed most of this infrastructure, and the loss of any focus on transcendence over the last forty years or so has seen the triumph of protestant ideas in Catholic practice, with those instant beatification funerals featuring white vestments. It is nice to see, though, that inspired by our current Pope, our two leading Archbishops trying to do something to restore the balance around this subject.

Remembering death is important

Indeed, we should all remember St Benedict's injunctions to 'keep death daily before one's eyes', 'to dread hell', and 'to desire eternal life with all spiritual longing'.

And that includes worrying about the eternal happiness of others including praying for the dead regularly - for our family and friends, but also those who have no one else to pray for them - especially in this month of November, traditionally set aside for this purpose. The Benedictine Office actually includes a daily memento of the dead, with prayers and the De Profundis offered for the deceased members, friends and benefactors, as well as the short prayer for the faithful departed at the end of each hour. That's a good model for others to consider!

In fact, Melbourne actually has a Guild of the Holy Souls, something other traddie communities might want to consider establishing.

In the meantime, the Office for today is the Office for the Dead, and saying one or two hours from it is something anyone can do - you will probably find a copy in your missal, but if not there are several places you can find it on the net, including nicely laid out here at Breviary Net.

Today and over the next week we also have the opportunity to earn plenary indulgences for the dead (see my post from Friday) - do it if you can!

1 comment:

David said...

Don't forget the Transalpine Redemptorists' (or whatever they're now called), Purgatorian Archconfraternity: