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Prayer for the Dead

Colophon has said quite a lot on this subject in the past, but it is one of the least understood aspects of Catholic teaching. The feast of All Souls ushers in a month-long period when we pray with particular intensity for all who have died but have not yet attained the bliss of heaven. What do we mean by that?

Let's start with the living. I know perfectly well that, despite all my efforts (and the efforts of my brethren), I am a sinner through and through. Like St Paul, I often find myself doing the exact opposite of what I want and intend to do. When I come to die, I know that there will be sin on my conscience: sins I have not acknowledged perhaps, sins I have tried to pretend don't really matter. In that situation I shall be personally helpless, but I shall not be without help. I know, with absolute certainty, that my brethren will pray for me perseveringly, that my sins may be forgiven and I may be prepared for the Vision of God.

This state of purification, when the living pray for the forgiveness of the dead, is known as purgatory. It is often downplayed today by those who would like to believe that we pass immediately from our sinful life on earth to absolute bliss. Attend any funeral, and you will hear, even in Catholic churches, very little that conforms to what the words of the requiem actually say. I think that is hard on the dead: it is the living seeking comfort for themselves rather than thinking about the needs of those who have died.

Today we have a sustained Office of the Dead. We pray with hope and trust, not in a gloomy or despondent way, for all the faithful departed: the Catholics murdered in Baghdad on Sunday; the old man who died alone and wasn't discovered until several weeks after death; members of our families and friends; those killed in car accidents; those killed in Afghanistan; all whom death has surprised or taken to herself. We pray that they may be freed from their sins and welcomed into paradise.

Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.