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Prayers for the Dead

I. General Statement and Proof of Catholic Doctrine; II. Questions of Detail; III. Practice in the British and Irish Churches

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Dead, PRAYERS FOR THE.—This subject will be treated under the following three heads: I. General Statement and Proof of Catholic Doctrine; II. Questions of Detail; III. Practice in the British and Irish Churches.


Catholic teaching regarding prayers for the dead is bound up inseparably with the doctrine of Purgatory (q.v.) and the more general doctrine of the Communion of Saints (q.v.), which is an article of the Apostles’ Creed. The definition of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV), “that purgatory exists, and that the souls detained therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar”, is merely a restatement in brief of the traditional teaching which had already been embodied in more than one authoritative formula—as in the creed prescribed for converted Waldenses by Innocent III in 1210 (Den-zinger, Enchiridion, n. 373) and more fully in the profession of faith accepted for the Greeks by Michael Palaeologus at the Second Ecumenical Council of Lyons in 1274 (ibid., n. 387). The words of this profession are reproduced in the decree of union subscribed by the Greeks and Latins at the Council of Florence in 1439: “[We define] likewise, that if the truly penitent die in the love of God, before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for their sins of commission and omission, their souls are purified by purgatorial pains after death; and that for relief from those pains they are benefited by the suffrages of the faithful in this life, that is, by Masses, prayers and almsgiving, and by the other offices of piety usually performed by the faithful for one another according to the practice [instituta] of the Church” (ibid., n. 588). Hence, under “suffrages” for the dead, which are defined to be legitimate and efficacious, are included not only formal supplications, but every kind of pious work that may be offered for the spiritual benefit of others, and it is in this comprehensive sense that we speak of prayers in the present article. As is clear from this general statement, the Church does not recognize the limitation upon which even modern Protestants often insist, that prayers for the dead, while legitimate and commendable as a private practice, are to be excluded from her public offices. The most efficacious of all prayers, in Catholic teaching, is the essentially public office, the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Coming to the proof of this doctrine, we find, in the first place, that it is an integral part of the great general truth which we name the communion of saints. This truth is the counterpart in the supernatural order of the natural law of human solidarity. Men are not isolated units in the life of grace, any more than in domestic and civil life. As children in Christ’s Kingdom they are as one family under the loving Fatherhood of God; as members of Christ’s mystical body they are incorporated not only with Him, their common Head, but with one another, and this not merely by visible social bonds and external cooperation, but by the invisible bonds of mutual love and sympathy, and by effective cooperation in the inner life of grace. Each is in some degree the beneficiary of the spiritual activities of the others, of their prayers and good works, their merits and satisfactions; nor is this degree to be wholly measured by those indirect ways in which the law of solidarity works out in other cases, nor by the conscious and explicit altruistic intentions of individual agents. It is wider than this, and extends to the bounds of the mysterious. Now, as between the living, no Christian can deny the reality of this far-reaching spiritual communion; and since death, for those who die in faith and grace, does not sever the bonds of this communion, why should it interrupt its efficacy in the case of the dead, and shut them out from benefits of which they are capable and may be in need? Of very few can it be hoped that they have attained perfect holiness at death; and none but the perfectly holy are admitted to the vision of God. Of few, on the other hand, will they at least who love them admit the despairing thought that they are beyond the pale of grace and mercy, and condemned to eternal separation from God and from all who hope to be with God. On this ground alone it has been truly said that purgatory is a postulate of the Christian reason; and, granting the existence of the purgatorial state, it is equally a postulate of the Christian reason that the souls in purgatory should continue to share in the communion of saints, or, in other words, be helped by the prayers of their brethren on earth and in heaven. Christ is King in purgatory as well as in heaven and on earth, and He cannot be deaf to our prayers for our loved ones in that part of His Kingdom, whom He also loves while He chastises them. For our own consolation as well as for theirs we want to believe in this living intercourse of charity with our dead. We would believe it without explicit warrant of Revelation, on the strength of what is otherwise revealed and in obedience to the promptings of reason and natural affection. Indeed, it is largely for this reason that Protestants in growing numbers are giving up today the joy-killing doctrine of the Reformers, and reviving Catholic teaching and practice. As we shall presently see, there is no clear and explicit war-rant for prayers for the dead in the Scriptures recognized by Protestants as canonical, while they do not admit the Divine authority of extra-Scriptural tradition. Catholics are in a better position.

A. Arguments from Scripture.

—Omitting some passages in the Old Testament which are sometimes invoked, but which are too vague and uncertain in their reference to be urged in proof (v. g. Tobias, iv, 18; Ecclus., vii, 37; etc.), it is enough to notice here the classical passage in II Machabees, xii, 40-46. When Judas and his men came to take away for burial the bodies of their brethren who had fallen in the battle against Gorgias, “they found under the coats of the slain some of the donaries of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbiddeth to the Jews: so that all plainly saw, that for this cause they were slain. Then they all blessed the just judgment of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden. And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought him, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten . And making a gathering, he [Judas] sent twelve [al. two] thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection (for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead), and because he considered that they who had fallen asleep in godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” For Catholics who accept this book as canonical, this passage leaves nothing to be desired. The inspired author expressly approves Judas’s action in this particular case, and recommends in general terms the practice of prayers for the dead. There is no contradiction in the particular case between the conviction that a sin had been committed, calling down the penalty of death, and the hope that the sinners had nevertheless died in godliness—an opportunity for penance had intervened.

But even for those who deny the inspired authority of this book, unequivocal evidence is here furnished of the faith and practice of the Jewish Church in the second century B.C.—that is to say, of the orthodox Church, for the sect of the Sadducees denied the resurrection (and, by implication at least, the general doctrine of immortality), and it would seem from the argument which the author introduces in his narrative that he had Sadducean adversaries in mind. The act of Judas and his men in praying for their deceased comrades is represented as if it were a matter of course; nor is there anything to suggest that the procuring of sacrifices for the dead was a novel or exceptional thing; from which it is fair to conclude that the practice—both private and liturgical—goes back beyond the time of Judas, but how far we cannot say. It is reasonable also to assume, in the absence of positive proof to the contrary, that this practice was maintained in later times, and that Christ and the Apostles were familiar with it; and whatever other evidence is available from Talmudic and other sources strongly confirms this assumption, if it does not absolutely prove it as a fact (see, v. g., Luckock, “After Death”, v, pp. 50 sq.). This is worth noting because it helps us to understand the true significance of Christ’s silence on the subject—if it be held on the incomplete evidence of the Gospels that He was indeed altogether silent—and justifies us in regarding the Christian practice as an inheritance from orthodox Judaism.

We have said that there is no clear and explicit Scriptural text in favor of prayers for the dead, except the above text of II Machabees. Yet there are one or two sayings of Christ recorded by the Evangelists, which are most naturally interpreted as containing an implicit reference to a purgatorial state after death; and in St. Paul’s Epistles a passage of similar import occurs, and one or two other passages that bear directly on the question of prayers for the dead. When Christ promises forgiveness for all sins that a man may commit except the sin against the Holy Ghost, which “shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come” (Matt., xii, 31-32), is the concluding phrase nothing more than a periphrastic equivalent for “never”? Or, if Christ meant to emphasize the distinction of worlds, is “the world to come” to be understood, not of the life after death, but of the Messianic age on earth as imagined and expected by the Jews? Both interpretations have been proposed; but the second is far-fetched and decidedly improbable (cf. Mark, iii, 29); while the first, though admissible, is less obvious and less natural than that which allows the implied question at least to remain: May sins be forgiven in the world to come? Christ’s hearers believed in this possibility, and, had He Himself wished to deny it, He would hardly have used a form of expression which they would naturally take to be a tacit admission of their belief. Precisely the same argument applies to the words of Christ regarding the debtor who is cast into prison, from which he shall not go out till he has paid the last farthing (Luke, xii, 59).

Passing over the well-known passage, I Cor., iii, 14 sq., on which an argument for purgatory may be based, attention may be called to another curious text in the same Epistle (xv, 29), where St. Paul argues thus in favor of the resurrection: “Otherwise what shall they do that are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptized for them?” Even assuming that the practice here referred to was superstitious, and that St. Paul merely uses it as the basis of an argumentum ad hominem, the passage at least furnishes historical evidence of the prevalence at the time of belief in the efficacy of works for the dead; and the Apostle’s reserve in not reprobating this particular practice is more readily intelligible if we suppose him to have recognized the truth of the principle of which it was merely an abuse. But it is probable that the practice in question was something in itself legitimate, and to which the Apostle gives his tacit approbation. In his Second Epistle to Timothy (i, 16-18; iv, 19) St. Paul speaks of Onesiphorus in a way that seems obviously to imply that the latter was already dead: “The Lord give mercy to the house of Onesiphorus “—as to a family in need of consolation. Then, after mention of loyal services rendered by him to the imprisoned Apostle at Rome, comes the prayer for Onesiphorus himself, “The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day” (the day of judgment); finally, in the salutation, “the household of Onesiphorus” is mentioned once more, without mention of the man himself. The question is, what had become of him? Was he dead, as one would naturally infer from what St. Paul writes? Or had he for any other cause become separated permanently from his family, so that prayer for them should take account of present needs while prayers for him looked forward to the day of judgment? Or could it be that he was still at Rome when the Apostle wrote, or gone elsewhere for a prolonged absence from home? The first is by far the easiest and most natural hypothesis; and if it be admitted, we have here an instance of prayer by the Apostle for the soul of a deceased benefactor.

B. Arguments from Tradition.

—The traditional evidence in favor of prayers for the dead, which has been preserved (a) in monumental inscriptions (especially those of the catacombs), (b) in the ancient liturgies, and (c) in Christian literature generally, is so abundant that we cannot do more in this article than touch very briefly on a few of the more important testimonies.

(a) The inscriptions in the Roman Catacombs range in date from the first century (the earliest dated is from A.D. 71) to the early part of the fifth; and though the majority are undated, archaeologists have been able to fix approximately the dates of a great many by comparison with those that are dated. The greater number of the several thousand extant belong to the ante-Nicene period—the first three centuries and the early part of the fourth. Christian sepulchral inscriptions from other parts of the Church are few in number compared with those in the catacombs, but the witness of such as have come down to us agrees with that of the catacombs. Many inscriptions are exceedingly brief and simple (PAX, IN PACE, etc.), and might be taken for statements rather than prayers, were it not that in other cases they are so frequently and so naturally amplified into prayers (PAX TIBI, etc.). There are prayers, called acclamatory, which are considered to be the most ancient, and in which there is the simple expression of a wish for some benefit to the deceased, without any formal address to God. The benefits most frequently prayed for are: peace, the good (i.e. eternal salvation), light, refreshment, life, eternal life, union with God, with Christ, and with the angels and saints—e.g. PAX (TIBI, VOBIS, SPIRITUI TUO, IN AETERNUM, TIBI CUM ANGELIS, CUM SANCTIS); SPIRITUS TUUS IN BONO (SIT, VIVAT, QUIESCAT); AETERNA LUX TIBI; IN REFRIGERIO ESTO; SPIRITUM IN REFRIGERIUM SUSCIPIAT DOMINUS; DEUSTIBI REFRIGERET; VIVAS, VIVATIS (IN DEO, IN SIC IN SPIRITO SANCTO, IN PACE, IN JETERNO, INTER SANCTOS, CUM MARTYRIBUS) .—For detailed references see Kirsch, “Die Acclamationen”, pp. 9-29; Cabrol and Leclercq, “Monumenta Liturgica” (Paris, 1902), I, pp. ci-evi, cxxxix, etc. Again there are prayers of a formal character, in which eur-vivors address their petitions directly to God the Father, or to Christ, or even to the angels, or to the saints and martyrs collectively, or to some one of them in particular. The benefits prayed for are those already mentioned, with the addition sometimes of liberation from sin. Some of these prayers read like excerpts from the liturgy: e.g. SET PATER OMNIPOTENS, ORO, MISERERE LABORUM TANTORUM, MISERE( re) ANIMIE NON DIG(na) FERENTIS (De Rossi, Inscript. Christ., II a, p. ix). Sometimes the writers of the epitaphs request visitors to pray for the deceased: e.g. QUI LEGIS, ORA PRO EO (Corpus Inscript. Lat., X, n. 3312), and sometimes again the dead themselves ask for prayers, as in the well-known Greek epitaph of Abercius (see Inscription of Abercius), in two similar Roman epitaphs dating from the middle of the second century (De Rossi, op. cit., II a, p. xxx, Kirsch, op. cit., p. 51), and in many later inscriptions. That pious people often visited the tombs to pray for the dead, and sometimes even inscribed a prayer on the monument, is also clear from a variety of indications (see examples in De Rossi, “Roma Sotteranea”, II, p. 15). In a word, so overwhelming is the witness of the early Christian monuments in favor of prayer for the dead that no historian any longer denies that the practice and the belief which the practice implies were universal in the primitive Church. There was no break of continuity in this respect between Judaism and Christianity.

The testimony of the early liturgies is in harmony with that of the monuments. Without touching the subject of the origin, development, and relationships of the various liturgies we possess, without even enumerating and citing them singly, it is enough to say here that all without exception—Nestorian and Monophysite as well as Catholic, those in Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic as well as those in Greek and Latin—contain the commemoration of the faithful departed in the Mass, with a prayer for peace, light, refreshment, and the like, and in many cases expressly for the remission of sins and the effacement of sinful stains. The following, from the Syriac Liturgy of St. James, may be quoted as a typical example: “We commemorate all the faithful dead who have died in the true faith. We ask, we entreat, we pray Christ our God, who took their souls and spirits to Himself, that by His many compassions He will make them worthy of the pardon of their faults and the remission of their sins” (Syr. Lit. S. Jacobi, ed. Hammond, p.75).

Turning finally to early literary sources, we find evidence in the apocryphal “Acta Joannis”, composed about A.D. 160-170, that at that time anniversaries of the dead were commemorated by the application of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (Lipsius and Bonnet, “Acta Apost. Apocr.”, I, 186). The same fact is witnessed by the “Canons of Hippolytus” (ed. Achelis, p. 106), by Tertullian (De Cor. Mil., iii, P.L., II, 79), and by many later writers. Tertullian also testifies to the regularity of the practice of praying privately for the dead (De Monogam., x, P.L., II, 942); and of the host of later authorities that may be cited, both for public and private prayers, we must be content to refer to but a few. St. Cyprian writes to Cornelius that their mutual prayers and good offices ought to be continued after either should be called away by death (Ep. lvii, P.L., III, 830 sq.), and he tells us that before his time (d. 258) the African bishops had forbidden testators to nominate a priest as executor and guardian in their wills, and had decreed, as the penalty for violating this law, deprivation after death of the Holy Sacrifice and the other offices of the Church, which were regularly celebrated for the repose of each of the faithful; hence, in the case of one Victor who had broken the law, “no offering might be made for his repose, nor any prayer offered in the Church in his name” (Ep. Ixvi, P.L., IV, 399). Ar-nobius speaks of the Christian churches as “conventicles in which. peace and pardon is asked for all men for those still living and for those already freed from the bondage of the body” (Adv. Gent., IV, xxxvi, P.L., V, 1076). In his funeral oration for his brother Satyrus St. Ambrose beseeches God to accept propitiously his “brotherly service of priestly sacrifice” (fraternum munus, sacrificium sacerdotis) for the deceased (“De Excessu Satyri fr.”, I, 80, P.L., XVI, 1315); and, addressing Valentinian and Theodosius, he assures them of happiness if his prayers shall be of any avail; he will let no day or night go past without remembering them in his prayers and at the altar (“De Obitu Valent.”, 78, ibid., 1381). As a further testimony from the Western Church we may quote one of the many passages in which St. Augustine speaks of prayers for the dead: “The universal Church observes this law, handed down from the Fathers, that prayers should be offered for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their proper place at the Sacrifice” (Serm. clxxii, 2, P.L., XXXVIII, 936). As evidence of the faith of the Eastern Church we may refer to what Eusebius tells us, that at the tomb of Constantine “a vast crowd of people together with the priests of God offered their prayers to God for the Emperor’s soul with tears and great lamentation” (Vita Const., IV, lxxi, P.G., XX, 1226). Aerius, a priest of Pontus, who flourished in the third quarter of the fourth century, was branded as a heretic for denying the legitimacy and efficacy of prayers for the dead. St. Epiphanius, who records and refutes his views, represents the custom of praying for the dead as a duty imposed by tradition (Adv. Hr., III, lxxx, P.G., XLII, 504 sq.), and St. Chrysostom does not hesitate to speak of it as a “law laid down by the Apostles” (Horn., iii, in Philipp., i, 4, P.G., LXII, 203).

C. Objections alleged.

—No rational difficulty can be urged against the Catholic doctrine of prayers for the dead; on the contrary, as we have seen, the rational presumption in its favor is strong enough to induce belief in it on the part of many whose rule of faith does not allow them to prove with entire certainty that it is a doctrine of Divine revelation. Old-time Protestant objections, based on certain texts of the Old Testament and on the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the New, are admitted by modern commentators to be either irrelevant or devoid of force. The saying of Ecclesiastes (xi, 3) for instance, “if the tree fall to the south, or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall, there shall it be”, is probably intended merely to illustrate the general theme with which the writer is dealing in the context, viz. the inevitableness of natural law in the present visible world. But even if it be understood of the fate of the soul after death, it can mean nothing more than what Catholic teaching affirms, that the final issue—salvation or damnation—is determined irrevocably at death; which is not incompatible with a temporary state of purgatorial purification for the saved. The imagery of the parable of Lazarus is too uncertain to be made the basis of dogmatic inference, except as regards the general truth of rewards and punishments after death; but in any case it teaches merely that one individual may be admitted to happiness immediately after death while another may be cast into hell, without hinting anything as to the proximate fate of the man who is neither a Lazarus nor a Dives.


—Admitting the general teaching that prayers for the dead are efficacious, we are naturally led on to inquire more particularly: (I) What prayers are efficacious? (2) For whom and how far are they efficacious? (3) How are we, theoretically, to conceive and explain their efficacy? (4) What disciplinary laws has the Church imposed regarding her public offices for the dead?—We shall state briefly what is needful to be said in answer to these questions, mindful of the admonition of the Council of Trent, to avoid in this matter those “more difficult and subtle questions that do not make for edification” (Sess. XXV).

The Sacrifice of the Mass has always occupied the foremost place among prayers for the dead, as will be seen from the testimonies quoted above; but in addition to the Mass and to private prayers, we have mention in the earliest times of almsgiving, especially in connection with funeral agapae, and of fasting for the dead (Kirsch, Die Lehre von der Gemeinschaft der Heiligen, etc., p. 171; Cabrol, Dictionnaire d’archeologie, I, 808-830). Believing in the communion of saints in which the departed faithful shared, Christians saw no reason for excluding them from any of the offices of piety which the living were in the habit of performing for one another. The only development to be noted in this connection is the application of Indulgences (q.v.) for the dead. Indulgences for the living were a development from the ancient penitential discipline, and were in use for a considerable time before we have any evidence of their being formally applied for the dead. The earliest instance comes from the year 1457. Without entering into the subject here, we would remark that the application of Indulgences for the dead, when properly understood and explained, introduces no new principle, but is merely an extension of the general principle underlying the ordinary practice of prayers and good works for the dead. The Church claims no power of absolving the souls in purgatory from their pains, as on earth she absolves men from sins. It is only per modum suffragii, i. e. by way of prayer, that Indulgences avail for the dead, the Church adding her official or corporate intercession to that of the person who performs and offers the indulgenced work, and beseeching God to apply, for the relief of those souls whom the offerer intends, some portion of the superabundant satisfactions of Christ and His saints, or, in view of those same satisfactions, to remit some portion of their pains, in what measure may seem good to His own infinite mercy and love.

To those who die in willful, unrepented mortal sin, which implies a deliberate turning away from God as the last end and ultimate good of man, Catholic teaching holds out no hope of eventual salvation by a course of probation after death. Eternal exile from the face of God is, by their own choice, the fate of such unhappy souls, and prayers are unavailing to reverse that awful doom. This was the explicit teaching of Christ, the meek and merciful Savior, and the Church can but repeat the Master’s teaching (see Hell). But the Church does not presume to judge individuals, even those for whom, on other grounds, she refuses to offer her Sacrifice and her prayers [see below, (4)], while it may happen, on the contrary, that some of those for whom her oblations are made are among the number of the damned. What of such prayers? If they cannot avail to the ultimate salvation of the damned, may it at least be held that they are not entirely unavailing to procure some alleviation of their sufferings, some temporary ref rigeria, or moments of mitigation, as a few Fathers and theologians have suggested? All that can be said in favor of this speculation is, that the Church has never formally reprobated it. But the great majority of theologians, following St. Thomas (In Sent. IV, xlv, q. ii, a. 2), consider it rash and unfounded. If certain words in the Offertory of the Mass for the Dead, “Lord Jesus Christ, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell, and the deep abyss”, seem originally to have suggested an idea of deliverance from the hell of the damned, this is to be understood not of rescue, but of preservation from that calamity. The whole requiem Office is intensely dramatic, and m this particular prayer the Church suppliant is figured as accompanying the departed soul into the presence of its Judge, and praying, ere yet sentence is pronounced, for its deliverance from the sinner’s doom. On the other hand, prayers are needless for the blessed who already enjoy the vision of God face to face. Hence in the Early Church, as St. Augustine expressly assures us (Serm. eclxxv, 5, P.L., XXXVIII, 1295), and as is otherwise abundantly clear, prayers were not offered for martyrs, but to them, to obtain the benefit of their intercession, martyrdom being considered an act of perfect charity and winning as such an immediate entrance into glory. And the same is true of saints whom the Church has canonized; they no longer need the aid of our prayers on earth. It is only, then, for the souls in purgatory that our prayers are really beneficial. But we do not and cannot know the exact degree in which benefits actually accrue to them, collectively or individually. The distribution of the fruits of the communion of saints among the dead, as among the living, rests ultimately in the hands of God—is one of the secrets of His economy. We cannot doubt that it is His will that we should pray not only for the souls in purgatory collectively, but individually for those with whom we have been bound on earth by special personal ties. Nor can we doubt the general efficacy of our rightly disposed prayers for our specially chosen ones as well as for those whom we leave it to Him to choose. This is sufficient to inspire and to guide us in our offices of charity and piety towards the dead; we may confidently commit the application of their fruits to the wisdom and justice of God. For a theoretical statement of the manner in which prayers for the dead are efficacious we must refer to the articles Merit and Satisfaction. in which the distinction between these terms and their technical meanings will be explained. Since merit, in the strict sense, and satisfaction, as inseparable from merit, are confined to this life, it cannot be said in the strict sense that the souls in purgatory merit or satisfy by their own personal acts. But the purifying and expiatory value of their discipline of suffering, technically called satispassio, is often spoken of in a loose sense as satisfaction. Speaking of satisfaction in the rigorous sense, the living can offer to God, and by impetration move Him graciously to accept, the satisfactory value of their own good works on behalf of the souls in purgatory, or in view of it to remit some part of their discipline; in this sense we may be said to satisfy for the dead. But in order that the personal works of the living may have any satisfactory value, the agents must be in the state of grace. The prayers of the just are on this account more efficacious in assisting the dead than the prayers of those in sin, though it does not follow that the general impetratory efficacy of prayer is altogether destroyed by sin. God may hear the prayers of a sinner for others as well as for the supplicant himself. The Sacrifice of the Mass, however, retains its essential efficacy in spite of the sinfulness of the minister; and the same is true, in lesser degree, of the other prayers and offices offered by the Church‘s ministers in her name. There is no restriction by Divine or ecclesiastical law as to those of the dead for whom private prayers may be offered—except that they may not be offered formally either for the blessed in heaven or for the damned. Not only for the faithful who have died in external communion with the Church, but for deceased non-Catholics, even the unbaptized, who may have died in the state of grace, one is free to offer his personal prayers and good works; nor does the Church‘s prohibition of her public offices for those who have died out of external communion with her affect the strictly personal element in her minister’s acts. For all such she prohibits the public offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass (and of other liturgical offices); but theologians commonly teach that a priest is not forbidden to offer the Mass in private for the repose of the soul of any one who, judging by probable evidence, may be presumed to have died in faith and grace, provided, at least, he does not say the special requiem Mass with the special prayer in which the deceased is named, since this would give the offering a public and official character. This prohibition does not extend to catechumens who have died without being able to receive baptism (see, v. g., Lehmkuhl, “Theol. Moralis”, II, n. 175 sq.). For other cases in which the Church refuses her public offices for the dead, the reader is referred to the article Christian Burial.


—The belief of our forefathers in the efficacy of prayers for the dead is most strikingly shown by the liturgy and ritual, in particular by the collects at Mass and by the burial service. See, for instance, the prayers in the Bobbio Missal, the Durham Ritual, Leofric’s Missal, the Salisbury Rite, the Stowe Missal, etc. But it should also be noted that this belief was clearly formulated, and that it was expressed by the people at large in numerous practices and customs. Thus, Venerable Bede declares that “some who for their good works have been preordained to the lot of the elect, but who, because of some bad deeds stained with which they went forth out of the body, are after death seized upon by the flames of the purgatorial fire, to be severely chastised, and either are being cleansed until the day of judgment from the filth of their vices by this long trial, or, being set free from punishment by the prayers, the alms-deeds, the fasts, the tears of faithful friends, they enter, undoubtedly before that time, into the rest of the blessed” (Homily xlix, ed. Martene, Thes. Anecd., p. 326).

The Council of Calcuth (816) ordained that at a bishop’s death the bell of every parish church should call the people together to sing thirty Psalms for the soul of the departed (Wilkins, Concilia, I, 171). In the Missal of Leofric (d. 1072) are found special prayers varying according to the condition and sex of the departed. Archbishop Theodore (d. 690), in the penitential ascribed to him, and St. Dunstan (d. 988), in his “Concordia”, explain at length the commemoration of the departed on the third, seventh, and thirtieth day after death. The month’s mind (month’s mynde) in that age signified constant prayer for the dead person during the whole month following his decease. In every church was kept a “Book of Life“, or register of those to be prayed for, and it was read at the Offertory of the Mass. This catalogue was also known as the “bead-roll” and the prayers as “bidding the beads”. The “death-bill” was a list of the dead which was sent around at stated times from one monastery to another as a reminder of the agreement to pray for the departed fellow-members. These rolls were sometimes richly illustrated, and in passing from one religious house to another they were filled in with verses in honor of the deceased. The laity also were united in the fellowship of prayer for the dead through the guilds, which were organized in every parish. These associations enjoined upon their members various du-ties in behalf of the departed, such as taking part in the burial services, offering the Mass-penny, and giving assistance to the alms-folks, who were summoned at least twice a day to bid their beads at church for the departed fellows of the guild. Among other good works for the dead may be mentioned: the “soul-shot”, a donation of money to the church at which the funeral service took place, the “doles”, i.e. alms distributed to the poor, the sick, and the aged for the benefit of a friend’s soul; the founding of chantries (q.v.) for the support of one or more priests who were to offer Mass daily for the founder’s soul; and the “certain”, a smaller endowment which secured for the donor’s special benefit the recitation of the prayers usually said by the priest for all the faithful departed. The universities were often the recipients of benefactions, e.g. to their libraries, the terms of which included prayers for the donor’s soul; and these obligations are set down in the university statutes. These various forms of charity were practiced not only by the common people but also, and on a very generous scale, by the nobility and royalty. Besides the bequests they made, they often provided in their will for granting freedom to a certain number of bondmen, and left lands to the Church on condition that the anniversary of their death should be kept by fasting, prayer, and the celebration of Masses. For a more complete account see Lingard, “History and Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church“, ch. ix; and Rock, “The Church of Our Fathers” (London, 1852), II, III.

Strange as it must seem to any one acquainted with the history of Ireland, various attempts have been made to prove that in the early Irish Church the practice of praying for the dead was unknown. Notable among these is Ussher’s “Discourse of the Religion anciently professed by the Irish and British” (1631; Vol. IV of “Complete Works”, Dublin, 1864). Cf. Killen, “The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland” (London, 1875), I; and Cathcart, “The Ancient British and Irish Churches” (London, 1894). The weakness of Ussher’s argument has been shown by several Catholic writers, e.g. Lanigan, “Ecclesiastical History of Ireland” (Dublin, 1829), II, 330 sq., and Brennan, “Ecclesiastical History of Ireland” (Dublin, 1864), appendix. More careful study has convinced competent non-Catholic writers also that “to pray for the dead was a recognized custom in the ancient Celtic as in every other portion of the primitive Church” (Warren, The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church, Oxford, 1881). This statement is borne out by various documents. The Synod of St. Patrick (“Synodus alia S. Patricii” in Wilkins, “concilia”) declares, ch. vii: “Hear the Apostle saying: `there is a sin unto death; I do not say that for it any one do pray’. And the Lord: `Do not give the holy to dogs’. For he who did not deserve to receive the Sacrifice during his life, how can it help him after his death?” The reference to the custom of offering Mass for the departed is obvious; the synod discriminates between those who had observed, and those who had neglected, the laws of the Church concerning the reception of the Eucharist.

Still more explicit is the declaration found in the ancient collection of canons known as the “Hibernensis” (seventh or eighth century): “Now the Church offers to the Lord in many ways; firstly, for herself, secondly for the Commemoration of Jesus Christ who says, `Do this for a commemoration of me’, and thirdly, for the souls of the departed” (Bk. II, ch. ix; Wasserschleben, “Die irische Kanonensammlung”, 2nd ed., Leipzig, 1885). In the fifteenth book of the “Hibernensis”, entitled “On Care for the Dead”, there is a first chapter “On the four ways in which the living assist the dead”. Quoting from Origen, it is said that “the souls of the departed are released in four ways: by the oblations of priests or bishops to God, by the prayers of Saints, by the alms of Christians, by the fasting of friends”. There follow eight chapters entitled: (2) On those for whom we should offer; (3) On sacrificing for the dead; (4) On prayer for the dead; (5) On fasting for the dead; (6) On almsgiving for the dead; (7) On the value of a redeemed soul; (8) On not seeking remission after death when it has not been sought for in life; (9) On the care of those who have been snatched away by sudden death (Wasserschleben, op. cit.). Each of these chapters cites passages from the Fathers—Augustine, Gregory, Jerome—thus showing that the Irish maintained the belief and practice of the Early Church. That prayers were to be offered only for those who died in the Faith is evident from certain prescriptions in St. Cummian’s Penitential according to which a bishop or abbot was not to be obeyed if he commanded a monk to sing Mass for deceased heretics; likewise, if it befell a priest singing Mass that another, in reciting the names of the dead, included heretics with the Catholic departed, the priest, on becoming aware of this was to perform a week’s penance. In the Leabhar Breac, various practices in behalf of the faithful departed are commended. “There is nothing which one does on behalf of the soul of him who has died that doth not help it, both prayer on knees, and abstinence and singing requiems and frequent blessings. Sons are bound to do penance for their deceased parents.” (Whitley Stokes, Introd. to “Vita Tripartita”). It is not, then, surprising that the Irish Culdees of the eighth century had as part of their duty to offer “intercessions, in the shape of litanies, on behalf of the living and the dead” (Rule of the Culdees, ed. Reeves, Dublin, 1864, p. 242). The old Irish civil law (Senchus Mor, A.D. 438-441) provided that the Church should offer requiem for all tenants of ecclesiastical lands. But no such enactments were needed to stir up individual piety.

Devotion to the souls departed is a characteristic that one meets continually in the lives of the Irish saints. In the life of St. Ita, written about the middle of the seventh century, it is related that the soul of her uncle was released from purgatory through her earnest prayers and the charity which, at her instance, his eight sons bestowed (Colgan, Acta SS. Hiberni, pp. 69-70). St. Pulcherius (Mochoemog), in the seventh century, prayed for the repose of the soul of Ronan, a chieftain of Ele, and recommended the faithful to do likewise. In the life of St. Brendan, quoted, singularly enough, by Ussher, we read, “that the prayer of the living doth profit much the dead”. In the “Acta S. Brendani”, edited by Cardinal Moran, the following prayer is given (p. 39): “Vouchsafe to the souls of my father and mother, my brothers, sisters, and relations, and of my friends, enemies and benefactors, living and dead, remission of all their sins, and particularly those persons for whom I have undertaken to pray.”

At the death of St. Columbanus (615), his disciple, St. Gall, said: “After this night’s watch, I understood by a vision that my master and father, Columbanus, today departed out of the miseries of this life into the joys of paradise. For his repose, therefore, the sacrifice of salvation ought to be offered”; and “at a signal from the bell [the brethren] entered the oratory, prostrated themselves in prayer and began to say masses and to offer earnest petitions in commemoration of the blessed Columbanus” (Walafrid Strabo, Vita B Galli, I, Cap. xxvi). Cathcart (op. cit., 332) cites only the words narrating the vision, and says: “they show conclusively that heaven was the immediate home after death of all the early Christians of Great Britain and Ireland.” But the truth is that praying for the dead was a traditional part of the religious life. Thus, when St. Gall himself died, a bishop who was his intimate friend offered the Holy Sacrifice for him—”pro carissimo salutares hostias immolavit amico” (ibid., ch. xxx). The same is recorded of St. Columba when he learned of the death of Columbanus of Leinster (Adamnan, Vita S. Col., III, 12). These facts are the more significant because they show that prayers were offered even for those who had been models of holy living. Other evidences are furnished in donations to monasteries, ancient inscriptions on gravestones, and the requests for prayers with which the writers of manuscripts closed their volumes.

These and the like pious practices were after all but other means of expressing what the faithful heard day by day at the memento for the dead in the Mass, when prayer was offered for those “who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace” (Stowe Missal).


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