Last night at a parish dinner function an interesting question was raised.
Someone told a touching story of a priest who prayed grace after meals with a formula different from the usual. He said that the priest, after years of maturing in his ministry had decided to pray, “May their souls and the souls of the unfaithful departed rest in peace.” The explanation given was that we should pray for everyone, even our enemies. People quietly nodded in general ascent, but their was a tingling in the back of my mind that something about this didn’t fit. Without wishing to question the obviously good intentions of the priest in the story, I had to ask myself, “Why do we pray for the FAITHFUL departed.” The answer lies in the Gospel, and in our understanding of life and death.
St. John Paul the II reminds us that the body is the physical expression of the soul. It’s the instrument given us by God to achieve good or evil according to our free will. Virtue is only real when it is acted upon physically… and sin is an action that we do even though we know it to be wrong.
At our death the books – as it were – are closed, and the Lord judges us based on how we lived. Those who live by faith in Christ will be saved. That faith may be overt, as in the case of faithful Christians… or it may be implicit, as in the case of virtuous non-Christians who live well but have never had the opportunity to get to know the Christ of Divine Revelation. Together these make up the “faithful” departed. Some of them go directly to heaven; others need to endure a time of purging of sins and attachments to this world in a state we call “purgatory.” Finally there are those who, in this life, chose to actively reject Christ. Whether they were baptized or not is irrelevant in this case… both are equally capable of rejecting God. Those who actively reject any relationship with him (explicit or implicit) can be in danger of living that way for eternity… and this we call hell.
Back to our question: Why do we pray for the FAITHFUL departed? and why not the unfaithful departed. The faithful in heaven don’t need our prayers. The faithful in purgatory can be sped on their way by our prayers and sacrifices joined to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. For the unfaithful, no amount of prayer will suffice. Jesus himself says as much in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) when he describes the words of Abraham, “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”
In the Divine Comedy, Dante tours Hell in the Inferno. In Canto XX, he comments to his guide, Virgil, that he has pity for the souls. Virgil is quick to correct the author, reminding him that the Justice of God is not something Dante should question. This speaks to the moment at last night’s dinner, I think. It’s to Dante’s credit that he has a heart not of stone but of flesh… a heart that can even feel for those suffering in hell. Virgil is correct… the damned are so because of their own free choices… BUT (and this is just my personal gloss on the scene), it’s telling that the virtuous pagan (Virgil) is lacking in sympathy, while the Christian (Dante) cannot help but be moved with pity. Nonetheless, the case remains: we pray for the “faithful” departed because that’s who we’re actually able to help by our prayers.