We are coming up to November, traditionally a month particularly for prayers for the dead, so I thought it might be worth saying something about this topic. Today, a little of the rationale and background; tomorrow a discussion of the most appropriate forms of prayer for the dead.
Up until the Protestant Reformation, Catholic teaching and culture had a strong emphasis on the duty of the Church Militant (those on Earth) to pray for the Church Suffering (ie those souls in purgatory). Those in purgatory can do nothing to help themselves, reliant on us to work for their release, and Christians had a strong sense of the duty to pray for family, friends and all souls who needed prayers.
The teaching is still there of course; but the practice is often undermined by cultural factors and erroneous ideas.
Preparing for death
These days we are often more intent on avoiding thinking about death, or making it as short a process as possible through evils such as euthanasia, than about preparing for it.
Our culture views the best death as the one quickly over, dying quickly in our sleep; yet the traditional catholic view is actually the opposite. The best death is one we know is coming and thus can properly prepare for, where we can receive all the relevant sacraments and blessings, and have others pray for us in our hour of need.
Living a good life with an eye firmly on our heavenly destination is of course the best long-term preparation, but there are important proximate preparations we need to make: making it clear to our families our preferences in relation to end of life care and our funeral preferences; making a will and so forth.
Also important is being aware of the potential for deathbed temptations, and knowing how to counter them; and on the other side, to work and pray for deathbed repentances.
There is a literature on this out there and works such as St Robert Bellarmine's The Art of Dying Well are well worth a read.
But once we do die, we must rely on the efforts of others on our behalf. Traditionally, not only was a Requiem said on the day of burial, after a week and on anniversaries, but also the Office of the Dead. Alms were given out with injunctions for the beneficiaries to pray for the soul of the deceased, and professional mourners were often employed to add to the volume of prayers. Those who could afford it often endowed priests or monks to say mass and clerks or religious to pray the Office of the Dead for their soul. Those who could not afford this as individuals joined guilds and confraternities who could arrange commemorations collectively on behalf of members.
How long in purgatory?
Nor were people unduly optimistic about how long purgatory might last for them: King Henry VII of England left money for 10,000 masses to be said on his behalf (well, he did manage to execute an awful lot of potential claimants to the throne); his son Henry VIII's first will provided for mass to be said on his and others behalf , and alms to be distributed 'as long as the world shall endure'. His own protestant revolution intervened however, and first 'chantries' lasting more than twenty years were suppressed, then all such provisions were eliminated as catholic superstition by his son Edward VI.
The effects of protestantism
The Counter Reformation saw a need for tighter controls over both the clergy and laity in the interest of preventing heresy, and thus made it much more difficult for the laity to arrange such provisions. The stricter emphasis on the need for official delegation to say the Office discouraged the laity from saying the Office of the Dead. And over time, the protestant belief in 'instant canonisation' at death has largely infiltrated the Catholic consciousness.
These factors, combined with the destruction of religious life (long gone, for example, are the provisions by which monasteries regularly said the Office of the Dead on behalf of benefactors and other souls) must surely mean that many many more souls are languishing in purgatory than previously.
So what can we do to remedy this? More soon.