Friday, November 1, 2013
Prayers for the dead. . .
The problem was brought home to me when I was attending Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City one Sunday morning, and the deacon offered a public prayer for the deceased wife of the head of the Mormon church. This was, on any reading of it, an absurd petition to make, since the true Church of Jesus Christ has already defined that Mormons are not confessionally Christian and that their “baptism” is null and void.
I was happy to read it. It was within a longer discussion of how the language of the petitions has become so loose as to say "the dead" when in in the liturgy the prayer is for "the dead in Christ". We pray for the faithful departed and not simply the dead. We pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who have departed this life in faith.
Certainly, we do not know the hearts of any and therefore the "faithful departed" does not mean some measure of earthly accomplishment (they went to church regularly, gave offerings, had a Bible at home, etc.) but the confidence of the means of grace. These are the baptized on whom the Lord placed His name and His promise. Truly we do not know the disposition of the heart of any of the baptized and that judgment is always left up to Him who does know the heart. But on All Saints and All Souls (now more likely fused together rather than distinct in the parish celebration), we commend to the Lord those whom, from our perspective, are the children of God (the baptized). That is enough. The Lord knows all. We know only what His Word and Sacrament declares.
An old joke, a favorite of mine, puts it this way. Three people died and found themselves before the pearly gates. The Roman Catholic was the first asked why he was there and why did he expect entry. He said he had been baptized, received first communion, was confirmed, went to mass regularly, and played bingo often. To him the gates were opened and the sound of rejoicing was heard from within. The Baptist was next and he too had been baptized even by immersion and went to church a Sunday evenings and Wednesdays as well as playing in the sports league and tithing. To him also the gates were opened and the sound of rejoicing was heard from within. Then came the Lutheran. Yeah, I was baptized but never confirmed and I went to church a couple of Christmases and an Easter and I put $1 in the plate each time. "Ummm, a difficult case," said St. Peter. He left to check with the boss. When he returned he said the gates would not open to the man. He refunded the man his $3 and told him to go to hell.
There was no need to claim faith since God knoweth the heart (as we have heard so often). What is wrong with the joke is that from our perspective, baptism seals the deal. So we commend all the baptized to the mercies of God. The rest is the Lord's and not ours -- even though the church is gravely tempted to intervene in this area where we do not belong.
What does the Church pray for the dead? A petition from the funeral rite is the best answer. "Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend Your servant ____________. Acknowledge we humbly beseech You, a sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming. Receive him/her into the arms of Your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light..."