Praying for the Election and Those Who Have Died

This post is reprinted from the Nov. 3 bulletin

Are you “electioned out”? On Tuesday the political campaign that seems to have been going on for years will at last come to an end in what is certain to be an exciting evening of election returns. Sometimes our prayers have about them a tone that demands that God do what we want him to do. Sometimes when I just sit and in my mind talk things over with God, I have realized how absurd it would be to ask him to make the election come out the way I prefer. I think God might laugh (or shake his head) at our anxiety over political matters, which often depart dramatically from the matters of eternity. I do not mean to say this election is not important. So please look at your choices from the perspective of your Catholic faith, and vote accordingly. What we believe really ought to affect every aspect of who we are. In my prayer lately, after I remind myself not to try to tell God who should be elected, I call to mind that God is in charge. No matter what happens, we will be all right because he loves us and offers us all an invitation to eternal happiness with him.

It is November, and Christians remember to pray for people who have died. The beautiful custom of praying for those who have died has its roots in some awareness of life after death that dates back to before the dawn of the Christian faith.  Concern for the dead predates the Jewish faith, even in what existed in Europe before Christianity arrived there. Those who brought the Christian faith to Europe would have discovered that the pagan people there felt some connection to people who had died.  They had customs and rituals that certainly did not fit very well with the Christian faith – customs that could be and were in fact changed.  In a new form, they were adopted as practices acceptable for Christian people.

 So a desire to maintain a relationship with people even after they have died is something that is felt deep in the human soul.  It was felt by pre-Christian people, and we feel it today.  People began to keep All Souls Day as a liturgical feast in certain places as long ago as the year 988. It is good to pray for the dead, and to recall that the ties that connect us to one another in life do not unravel with death.  We all remain part of the same Church, if we are baptized.  Those who are being purified after death, waiting to enter into the fullness of Paradise in the presence of God, are part of the Church.  The blessed in heaven, who already share in the inner life of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are part of the Church.  And we who live here on earth are part of the Church.  So we have a duty to remember in our prayers those who have died and can benefit from our requests to God that he show them his mercy.  These souls who can benefit from our prayers are the souls in Purgatory, those who are being purified.

Pope Benedict taught us about this purification and prayer for the dead in his 2007 encyclical letter Spe Salvi (see especially paragraphs 46, 47, and 48). He reminds us that we already know from experience that neither the state of being totally bad nor totally good is normal in human life.  For most people, “much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains.”  When people appear before the Judge, “will all the impurity they have amassed through life cease to matter?” He directs us to St. Paul, who says in First Corinthians 3:12-15 that a certain kind of man “will be saved, but only as through fire.”  We have to “pass through fire” to be open to receiving God, the Pope tells us, and points out that some theologians believe “that the fire that both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment.  Before his gaze all falsehood melts away … Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives becomes evident to us, there lies salvation.” This allows us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.

The Holy Father also reminds us that the practice of Christian hope also includes prayer for the dead.  By the first century before Christ, Jewish thought included the belief that the dead who are in the intermediate state can be helped (2 Maccabees 12:38-45), and Christians adopted the practice. The souls of the dead can be comforted by the Eucharist, by prayer, and by almsgiving – this is “the belief that love can reach into the afterlife.”  In a beautiful way he answers the objection that third parties cannot do anything for somebody else’s purification: “Our lives are involved with one another… The lives of others continually spill over into mine.”  Our prayer can play a small part in the purification of somebody else. We should not ask only, “How can I save myself?” Instead we should 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.”

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