2016-06-30
Adapted from "Faith of our Fathers" and reprinted with permission of The Tablet.

I grew up in the fifties in a small town on the east coast of Ireland. Neither my family nor the wider community struck me, then or since, as especially pious; but religion was everywhere, and it was a religion in which the dead were more or less continuously present. Collection boxes stood at the back of every church for "the Holy Saints." The dead were remembered as part of every public prayer, even grace before meals, which always ended with petitions for eternal rest and light perpetual on the souls of the faithful departed. Our prayer books were stuffed with memorial cards, pious bookmarks whose stilted inscriptions and blurred photographs reminded us of the obligation to pray for departed friends and relatives. Every year at Easter we walked in a straggling procession the mile or more to the town cemetery for the annual blessing of the graves: the week before was a period of intensive clearing and tidying of family plots, in which it would be hard to say whether grief, devotion or the determination not to let the family down in front of the neighbors had the upper hand.

All Souls Day, on November 2, was not a holiday of obligation, but everyone with any pretensions to religion went to Mass, the liturgy notable for the somber black vestments in which the celebrant was swathed. The De La Salle Brothers who ran our local school explained that we could gain an indulgence which would release a soul from purgatory during every visit to a church that day, in the course of which we recited five "Our Fathers" and five "Hail Marys" for the pope's intentions. There was no limit on how many times this indulgence could be gained, so the pious or the elderly with a lot of dead friends and relatives could be seen going in and out of church all day long, chalking up indulgences, the wing-beats of the ransomed beating joyously about their ears.


Behind all this was a very clear geography of the afterlife, charting every detail of the fate of the departed. That geography had taken 1,000 years to evolve. There is little or no explicit mention of prayer for the dead in the New Testament, but invocations for the peace of the departed occur among the earliest Christian grave inscriptions, and the dead are commemorated in ancient liturgical texts like the Canon of the Mass. A few theologians, like St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great, speculated about the existence of a state of painful purgation by fire through which the imperfectly or belatedly penitent must pass before they were granted the beatific vision but a full-blown theology of purgatory did not emerge until the beginning of the second millennium.

Here, as so often in Christian history, theory lagged well behind practice. The Western liturgy of mourning for and commemoration of the dead reached its decisive form not in the parishes or dioceses of the Church at large, but in the monasteries of the Middle Ages. There, in close-knit communities in which the memories of dead brethren were lovingly cherished, and in which there were large numbers of Religious and priests with time to pray, intercession for the dead came to be seen as one of the chief obligations - and benefits - of monastic life. Soon the lay patrons, benefactors and clients of the monasteries sought a share in this benefit, paying to have their names included on the lists of those prayed for in the monasteries, even acquiring graves in monastic precincts. The liturgy of the wider Church began to absorb and imitate the services of intercession for the dead evolved in the monasteries.

Alongside this liturgical and devotional development went a legal and theological rationale. How did prayer benefit the dead? Theologians elaborated the theory of a middle state between heaven and hell, in which all those who had died in a state of grace (but imperfectly purged of the aftermath of sin) would be cleansed and prepared for heaven. Sin repented of would not exclude from heaven, but it left behind an aftermath, a burden of damages or of "satisfaction" to be worked off in acts of penance - self-denial and self-punishment, charity to the poor, prayer.

But what of those who died with such penance incomplete? Purgatory was the answer to that question, imagined as a period of time granted or imposed after death in which the unfinished business of satisfactory penance could be completed. The prayers of those still on earth, and works of penance or of charity carried out on behalf of or in solidarity with the dead, could shorten this period of post-mortem penance, and this, it was thought, explained the Church's immemorial custom of praying for the dead.

The picture-language of the Bible on the afterlife suggested a paradise garden of bliss for those in heaven, and a cellar-full of torments for those in hell. Since purgatory was the place where sin was punished and removed, it was felt it must resemble hell more than heaven. And "place" was the operative word: most of those who reflected on the subject thought it must be a real place, a prison which was part of the geography of hell, only not quite so deep or dark, and with exits available when the sentence was complete.

There were always those uneasy with this account of things, and the greatest imaginative vision of the afterlife composed in the Middle Ages, Dante's Commedia, broke free from this suffocating gloom to offer a poetic vision of purgatory which relocated it more securely within the context of the Gospel. For Dante, too, purgatory was a place; however, for him it was not a pit of despair, but a mountain of hope, reaching up into the light, and the sufferings there were designed to heal, not to punish.

The dominant color in purgatory is green, the color of hope and of renewal, and as Dante begins his ascent of the mountain of repentance after his traumatic descent into the pit of hell, Virgil, his guide, gently washes the tears and filth of sin from his face, foreshadowing the work of renewal which is the business of purgatory.

By the end of the Middle Ages belief in purgatory had become one of the most vivid aspects of Catholicism, and prayer for the dead had become the chief activity of most clergy. In England, parish priests were outnumbered three to one by priests employed on fixed-term contracts singing Masses and reciting prayers for the repose of the souls of the more prosperous laity. One of medieval England's greatest poets, William Langland, was himself a lay clerk employed to recite psalms and prayers for the dead.


The Protestant reformers swept all that away. The whole idea of purgatory was rooted in Catholic understanding of penance, and this the reformers thought false, for it seemed to place salvation in human effort and voluntary human suffering. Trust in God alone could save us. At death those with faith in the Cross of Christ went straight to heaven, those without went straight to hell.

Unintentionally the reformers drove a wedge between the living and the dead: the saints did not pray for us, and we could do nothing for the dead. In effect, the dead were cut off from the great web of mutual love and support which was Church. And in practice, the reformed doctrine struck the Church dumb at the graveside of sinners.

Reformed funeral rites, like that in the Book of Common Prayer, rejoiced that the Christian died "in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life." But how could such confidence be spoken at the graveside of a murderer, a child abuser, an oppressor of the poor - or of the merely mediocre?

With a larger charity and a deeper wisdom, the Catholic Church had from time immemorial insisted that at every graveside, whether of saint or sinner, we might say the same prayer - "Lord, have mercy." In that prayer the Church expressed neither fear nor self-reliance, but faith and hope in the God who can bring meaning out of horror, and who loves even the unlovely.

For behind all the contradictory Catholic imaginings lay a piercing perception, that even for those who love God, death leaves unfinished business - damaged and damaging relationships, misunderstandings unresolved, words of love or apology or explanation unspoken, the need to forgive, and to be forgiven. What are we to do with such pain and incompleteness, but place it in the hands of God? In silencing prayer for the dead, the reformers left no space in prayer for these realities, and left Christians with no language except that of triumph in which to pray about the often far from triumphant experience of mortality.

The essence of belief in purgatory was not the horror stories of the preachers and visionaries, but the conviction that even for those who died with their faith weak, their love imperfect, there might be healing at the hands of a loving redeemer. Prayer for the dead is neither fear nor fire insurance, emphatically not an attempt to appease an angry or sadistic God. It is an exercise in the virtues of faith and hope and love.

For prayer for the dead is also a bridge across the gulf of separation which is death. We are social beings, but most of us can expect to die alone, in a hospital bed rather than in our homes. Death is the ultimate alienation, the sacramental expression of all the barriers which divide us. Medieval Christianity witnessed against that isolation by constantly remembering the dead, recalling their names, in the liturgy and in private: the dead remained part of the church community. The Reformation, in silencing all naming of the dead in prayer, unwittingly endorsed the experience of death as alienation.


Images of purgatory come and go, some better than others, none of them essential. We do not pray for the dead to bail them out of prison or to placate a God who demands satisfaction, but because we know that they live in Christ, bound to us in a single faith and hope and love, and therefore with a right to a place in our prayers. We feel ourselves diminished by their deaths, and that has a reality in faith as well as in natural experience.

Salvation is complete for none until it is complete for all: the whole of creation groans as it waits for redemption, and our prayers for the dead, like our belief that the saints pray for us, is a concrete expression of that conviction. In praying for the dead we pray also for ourselves, for we are only ourselves in relation to those who have shaped us and loved us, we are only ourselves in the company of our brothers and sisters. Praying for them, we put into words the pathos and the pain of our shared humanity. In the face of sin, ours and theirs, and confronted with the apparent waste, obscurity and isolation of death, we affirm our faith and hope in the God who creates us all, who loves us all and who wills to redeem us all.

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