It is not surprising that in the ancient Roman world, the month of February—the shortest in the solar calendar—was dedicated to the recollection of the passing nature of time and earthly life, and the reality of death. In this month Pluto, the god of the underworld, was venerated, and the deceased ancestors of the living were as well. This February, remembrance of the departed was especially intense during the days of the solemn commemoration called the Parentalia from February 13 through the 21st. This was called a supplicatio novendialis—that’s right, a nine-day prayer, a novena for the dead. Graves were lit and decorated, offerings of food were made, sacrifices in expiation were offered. There was no public business, magistrates abandoned their signs of office, unnecessary work was halted. There were also other times, private dates and anniversaries, which also might be celebrated with a novena or other set number of days throughout the year.
This is how we have the feast of St. Peter’s Chair on February 22 each year. The ancient Christians of Rome naturally thought of commemorating their first bishop, St. Peter, in the context of the Parentalia for departed ancestors, but just one day later to make it clear that it was a new thing, similar to the pagan observance, but also different. In the catacombs there was even a ritual chair carved in the wall in which the one presiding over the commemoration sat. This may be the reason for the association of the annual memorial with a chair.
My, my! This does sound more and more like the practice of Catholics, both Eastern and Western. Are some of our less culturally enlightened Christian neighbors right in saying Catholic practices are pagan? That we are continuing a spirituality alien to Scripture? That our liturgy and devotion are taken over from heathen superstition? Not at all. Rather the rejection of the veneration and assistance offered the dead by some Christians is the strange thing. An ancient Christian would address one of these modern believers and say “You do not pray for the dead? Aren’t you a believer?” An orthodox Jew today would say, “How can you say you have the religion of the Bible and not pray for and daily remember the dead, as we pious Jews have always done?” And even the Roman pagan, fresh from decorating the graves of his ancestors, might say, “You are a Christian, you say, but not like any I have met. Are you not at least a human? Don’t you care about the lives of your family in the next world?”
But even among orthodox, practicing Catholics, do we care enough in the concrete about the present state of our dear dead? And especially those who did us the most good, to whom we are the most indebted and thus in whom we should take a special interest? Who might such a one be for each one of us? Among our many spiritual and physical ancestors who have departed this life, we can remember especially one who was the father of us all, more than a blood relative. I mean Our Holy Father Benedict XVI, who died on the last day of the year 2022. This was not even three months ago. Have we prayed for the repose of his soul? Don’t be shocked, but he may need it more than many others.
Deceased pontiffs have a special claim on our prayers. According to St. Gregory the Great, popes and bishops have been given works to do that are of greater merit because they do more good for more souls than the actions of private persons. Thus, their reward will be greater in heaven. As the holy prophet Daniel tells us: “But they that are learned shall shine as the brightness of the firmament: and they that instruct many to justice, as stars for all eternity.”
But the faults of popes and bishops also proportionately harm more people than the faults of persons with less universal roles. And so St. Gregory authoritatively opines that even though a certain holy pontiff may have more glory in heaven than many others on account of the universal scope of his meritorious actions, he may also have a longer purification and debt to pay than others because what faults he may have had had more universal repercussions. That’s quite a sobering thought. The justice of God is perfect, and the debt of justice must be eliminated before entering eternal life. And as we know from the tradition and practice of the Church, being a saint doesn’t mean you don’t have any purgatory! Another great doctor of the Church, St. Robert Bellarmine, makes this same point vigorously in his treatise On the Moaning of the Dove about sin, death, and the last things.
Now, St. John Paul II was beatified barely six years after his death and canonized in less than a decade. All Catholics understand (or should) that a legitimate, regular canonization indicates that the person canonized according to the law is now in heaven and may be honored liturgically at Holy Mass and the Divine Office, and may be publicly invoked in the Church. Of this there can be no doubt. But this does not mean that the saint did not benefit from the Church’s prayers on his behalf.
At the funeral of John Paul II, there were chants and posters from the crowd proclaiming, “Santo subito!”—literally, “Saint immediately!” Perhaps this was true, but precisely because so many of the faithful were praying for the soul of the departed pontiff. Perhaps his debt was paid by the loving satisfactions of his mourning children.
This is a truly Catholic perspective. We are not a political party or ideology or fan club, avoiding the awareness of the defects and needs of our leaders. The holiness of John Paul II was evident to all who came in contact with him in any way. I experienced it myself six or so times in my years in Rome, but those are stories for another time. In any case, he was also a fallen child of Eve, a sinner. That’s Catholic dogma.
So it is for our beloved and much lamented Pope Benedict XVI. Let us pray for him. He had a long career in the Church: much teaching and writing, much apostolic ministry, and along with these several serious changes in his course when he corrected himself and moved on. His abdication was an action that does not immediately suggest virtue or holiness, and we may assume that it was done well and with merit, but it may have borne also the weight of some fault. So pray for the happy repose of his soul.
The Vatican is not Pyongyang, North Korea: the Holy Father is infallible in defining the Faith, but every single pope from Peter on, as the New Testament amply demonstrates, was imperfect and in need of God’s mercy. Indeed, we are more obliged in charity and in justice to pray for, to make sacrifices and works of mercy for, a deceased pope than for anyone else.
Thus it was that the season of prayers for a deceased Roman Pontiff was called, as in ancient Rome, the novena, the nine-day supplication, the supplicatio novendialis. May we follow Catholic practice, Christian tradition, and simple human decency and pray for the soul of Benedict XVI. His own words, which follow here, illustrate with his usual lucidity and depth the rationale of our Roman custom. Mark them well, and someday you will hear his heartfelt Danke!
Early Jewish thought includes the idea that one can help the deceased in their intermediate state through prayer (see for example 2 Macc 12:38-45; first century B.C.). The equivalent practice was readily adopted by Christians and is common to the Eastern and Western Church. . . . The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon?
Now a further question arises: if “purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Savior, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another; through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do, and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls; simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.
In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too.
As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well (Spe Salvi 48).