Did you ever notice that when I pray Eucharistic Prayer I, I pause in the middle of the prayer for a few seconds? No, it’s not because I fell asleep, or because I forgot my line. That particular moment in the Roman Canon is the Commemoration of the Dead. Have you ever asked why we pray for the dead in the first place?
There are lots of reasons throughout the Old and New Testaments and in the first practices of the early Church, but probably the most direct reference is in the 2nd book of Maccabees. Some people may not know much about this book, but it’s a great story. The Jewish people were being hard pressed by the Greeks to abandon the public practice of their faith, and the Books of Maccabees are about the series of successful rebellion campaigns led by Judas Maccabeus against Antiochus V around 163 BC.
After a few skirmishes, Judas returned to the battlefield to bury his soldiers, and he takes a few moments to pray for them and take up a sacrificial collection of silver on their behalf. This is awesome, because it’s so similar to what we do today! These were godly men, but they were still carrying around amulets to pagan gods, showing they were still sort of attached to lesser sins, despite the fact that they were good people.
The passage (2 Maccabees 12:39-46) points out that it would be useless to pray for them if we did not expect them to rise again. He believes that the dead can and must be purified by the prayer and sacrifices of the living. Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.” (2 Mac 12:46)
So fast-forward to today. During Mass, we pray for the souls of the just who have gone before us in faith. As many good memories as we have of them, I would wager that most of our deceased relatives and friends weren’t perfect – they might have still been attached to some bad habits or venial sins. That doesn’t change our love for them, but Purgatory is about removing those obstacles and striving for perfection to see God face-to-face.
Sometimes people have the idea that Purgatory is a bad thing, and that God wouldn’t want someone to suffer. But the “suffering” souls experience in Purgatory isn’t like the suffering that we’re used to. Imagine waiting for a movie that you’ve been getting excited to see for a whole year, and when you get to the theater, you’re at the end of a long line. Your suffering is that you want to get in and see the movie – you want the reward! But the anticipation of the movie is making you anxious as you wait. Maybe you have regret over not having prepared well enough to get to the theater earlier. But the thing is, you know you’re going to get into the movie, and you know the movie will be fantastic – you just have to wait.
Purgatory is infinitely better than our lives on earth because here, we’re still making that choice between Heaven and Hell by the way we live our lives and how we strive to imitate Christ. In Purgatory, that decision is made – that soul is going to Heaven to be face-to-face with God!
So don’t forget your loved ones. Remember the names of your beloved dead, and pray for them, especially for those few moments during the Eucharistic Prayer. And through our faith, prayer, and good works, let’s strive for Heaven as well!