Have you been to a Catholic funeral lately? If so, was it a canonization, or was it the Mass of Christian Burial for the faithful departed? It seems that the homily at many Catholic funerals includes something to the effect that “‘he’ or ‘she’ is in heaven now.” In effect, the homilist is saying or implying that the soul of the deceased has skipped purgatory and gone directly to heaven. This is in some ways the eschatological equivalent of playing the “Get out of Jail Free” card of life. It is easy to assume the souls of our deceased loved ones already have made it to eternal bliss. But have they? Maybe—maybe not.
The Status of Souls and the State of the Grieving Survivors
On the one hand, there is sadness and a deep sense of loss among the relatives and friends of the deceased. Thus, the pastoral thing to do is to provide them with some comfort and a spiritual, faith-based context to help them at this difficult time. At the same time, the Mass is an intercession for the soul of the departed loved one. That soul’s attainment of the eternal life with God is a top priority.
When people hear that the deceased is in heaven, it’s easy to become complacent after the funeral. We can inadvertently overlook the need for prayers for this person’s soul—after all, they are in heaven, right? That’s what we heard from the ambo, after all. When we consider the poor catechesis of many Catholics, the matter is even more grave—no pun intended. How many of the faithful understand that once someone dies, they don’t necessarily just go right to heaven? Even if the deceased was a good old boy or girl, they may not be at this instant with God, and all His angels and saints.
What Happens to Souls of the Faithful Departed?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God forever, for they “see Him as He is,” face to face… (CCC 1023). If we die in a state of grace, we will end up seeing God. Dying in a state of grace means that, at the time of our death, we are not in a state of mortal sin. Mortal sin cuts us off from God and His grace. “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him” (CCC 1855).
If we commit mortal sin, we then need to confess, repent and amend our ways. As a result, we can look forward to eternal life with Our Lord—someday. Someday can be at the time that we depart this life, or it might be some point out into the future, depending on the purity of our soul.
Why Do We Need “Perfectly Purified” Souls?
The teaching of the Church holds that we need to undergo purification, either while here on earth, or after death, before seeing God. The reason is to allow us “…to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven…” (CCC 1030). We want to be united with God—the God of infinite love, mercy, goodness and purity. How can we do so if we have not atoned for the sins we’ve committed?
Father Wade Menezes, in his book, The Four Last Things, explains this concept nicely. I will paraphrase it here. If you back into my car in the parking lot, you may be truly sorry for having done so. You may confess that you’ve done it. I can forgive you for doing so, but you’re still on the hook for the damage you’ve caused. Paying for the damage is the metaphor for undergoing purification to enter into God’s presence. We all, being imperfect humans, have some atoning to do, either now or in the future.
Purification of Souls Now Rather Than Later
Father Wade explains that we don’t have to wait and spend time after death in purgatory to attain purification. In fact, we can achieve purification of our souls to one degree or another in this present life. To do this, we need to embrace our crosses and offer up our suffering and tribulations. Thus, we are turning those things we would prefer to avoid into redemptive suffering, uniting them to the cross of Christ. We can undergo real-time purification through prayer, fasting and alms giving. As well, we can perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and partake of the Sacraments. Indulgences are attached to these activities, and Father Wade recommends that we routinely pursue those indulgences available to us.
Indulgences—Gifts for Our Souls
An indulgence is not an exemption from any commandments or precepts, nor is it permission to commit a sin. It certainly is not a means of buying one’s way into salvation. An indulgence is “…a remission…of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven…An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead” (CCC 1471).
The Manual of Indulgences, published by the USCCB, has a complete list of indulgences available to the faithful. Praying the Rosary at home with our family, or in a church with other faithful, can generate a plenary indulgence, for example. Grace before meals can get us a partial indulgence. We can ask that any of these indulgences be applied either for ourselves or for others, including our departed brothers and sisters.
The Apostolic Pardon and the Souls of the Faithful Departed
There is one time when we might assume that the departed soul truly is in heaven. This is when that person has received an apostolic blessing from a priest prior to their death. The Manual of Indulgences, No. 12, §1 states that, “A priest who administers the Sacraments to someone in danger of death should not fail to impart the apostolic blessing to which a plenary indulgence is attached.”
In other words, a complete remission of the effects of forgiven sins occurs. Outside of an apostolic blessing, we cannot know with certainty that the deceased actually is in heaven. Even with an apostolic blessing in place, some commentators have suggested that we still should pray for the souls of the faithful departed. If they don’t end up needing our prayers, some other souls can benefit from them.
Avoiding the Canonization Syndrome
When it’s my time to face the particular judgment, I don’t want anyone assuming anything—other than the fact that I need their prayers. I plan on talking to my pastor about two key wishes I have in this regard. One is that, if I’m hospitalized and in danger of death, that he or another priest administer last rites, viaticum, prayers for commendation of the dying, and the apostolic blessing. The other is that, at my funeral, some brief explanation of Catholic beliefs in this matter be mentioned, and that prayers for my soul be requested. The latter is even more important if conditions are such that I couldn’t get an apostolic blessing before my departing from this life.
Mass—Not a “Service”
My wife and I left instructions in our wills to have a Mass celebrated upon each of our deaths. We want the real deal—the Mass of Christian Burial—not just a “service” and interment. Nowadays, we hear of too many situations where the survivors opted out of a Mass for one reason or another. We don’t want that to happen in our case.
As well, we’ve left instructions to arrange for Gregorian Masses for us. The Marians of the Immaculate Conception explain this practice:
Gregorian Masses are a series of Holy Masses traditionally offered on 30 consecutive days as soon as possible after a person’s death…The custom of offering Gregorian Masses for a particular soul recognizes that few people are immediately ready for heaven after death, and that, through the infinite intercessory power of Christ’s sacrifice, made present in Holy Mass, a soul can be continually perfected in grace and enabled to enter finally into the union with the Most Holy Trinity – our God, Who is Love Itself.
This tradition began in the sixth century with Pope St. Gregory the Great. Although it is an approved tradition, it is not an official one. I’ve heard opinions both pro and con for Gregorian Masses. In my view, it sure can’t hurt anything and could possibly do some good for one or more souls. If so, why not take advantage of it? There are a variety of religious orders that provide Gregorian, or Seraphic, Masses. You can find them through an internet search.
Preparing Now—Praying Now
As Jesus tells us, we “…know neither the day nor the hour” of our passing (Mt 25:13). Knowing that, we need to take these matters seriously. We probably all would like to optimize our chances of making it to heaven, while avoiding or minimizing post-death purgation. Living as Jesus asks, following the “greatest commandment,” showing charity and mercy to others is a good start. Maintaining a robust prayer life, and frequent reception of the Sacraments will help keep us on the right path.
We must pray without ceasing, for the souls of our departed family, friends, priests and religious we knew. Offer Masses, including Gregorian Masses for them. Keep them in your intentions in your daily prayers, including the Rosary. We ought to pray proactively, as well, for the grace of conversion, reversion or deeper conversion for our family, friends, priests and religious, and ourselves.
As a final note, this time of the year, we’d all do well to pray for all the souls in purgatory, especially those who have no one else to pray for them. Pray for them, asking God to show them mercy and bring them home to Him. St. Gertrude the Great, a 13th century Benedictine mystic, offered the following prayer for souls in purgatory:
Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family.
According to tradition, our Lord promised St. Gertrude that 1,000 souls would be released from purgatory each time it is said devoutly. In any event, all prayers are good. Let’s not forget our departed brothers and sisters, and let’s not assume anything; rather, let’s pray for them.