NOVEMBER 8, 2004




In His Light

by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

Prayers for the dead assist in their final conversion

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

It’s harvest time. The shortening of the days and the lengthening of the nights are powerful reminders that the year is moving to its close, and so we gather up all that the year has given us.

The time for harvesting nature’s goods is also a fitting moment to consider the harvest for eternity. Our Lord himself compared the last things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – to a harvest:

“‘Let both [the weeds and the wheat] grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Mt. 13:30, see also vv. 36-43).

And so the month of November begins with the Feast of All Saints, followed immediately by All Souls Day — solemn days to remember the gathering of our departed loved ones to God.

So present is the image of the eternal harvest to our imaginations at this time of year that all of November has come to be observed as a month of intense prayer for our beloved dead.

Our communion in the risen flesh and blood of Christ is stronger than death. The Holy Spirit, the Father and Son’s own love, is our bond, and his power makes death’s threat of dissolution and annihilation impotent.

From the days when the Apostles walked among the first disciples until now, this confidence in the Communion of Saints has led Christians to pray for the dead, especially during the Eucharist, the very Sacrifice of loving communion.

Recall that we never ever offer the Mass without praying for the dead. As Judas Maccabeus realized already even in the days before Christ: “To pray for the dead… was a holy and pious thought” (2 Macc 12:44-45).

The practice of praying for the dead leads quite naturally to considering the effect of these prayers. Since the dead for whom we pray have already been judged by God as not deserving of hell and have heaven as their final destination, what do our prayers accomplish?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us the key for our answer: “Every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory” (n. 1472).

There “they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (n. 1031).

Those that must pass through Purgatory in order to prepare for heaven have not fully completed their conversion. Yes, they died in God’s friendship; they died loving God above all else; however, they were not fully in love with God. Purgatory is something like a grade of “Incomplete” in the course on holiness, a place for the final remediation of disordered loves.

Just as our prayers can support and assist Christians in their conversion to ever greater holiness in this life, so we can support them as they complete their conversion process as it extends into eternity.

What I have set forth here in the plain language of Christian doctrine is expressed most eloquently in a passage from Cardinal Newman’s poem “The Dream of Gerontius.” Listen now as the Guardian Angel speaks to the soul in his charge, whom he is escorting to the Throne of Judgment:

“When then – if such thy lot – thou seest thy Judge,
The sight of Him will kindle in thy heart,
All tender, gracious, reverential thoughts.
Thou wilt be sick with love, and yearn for Him,
And feel as though thou couldst but pity Him,
That one so sweet should e’er have placed Himself
At disadvantage such, as to be used
So vilely by a being so vile as thee.
There is a pleading in His pensive eyes
Will pierce thee to the quick, and trouble thee.
And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself; for, though
Now sinless, though wilt feel that thou hast sinned,
As never thou didst feel; and wilt desire
To slink away, and hide thee from His sight
And yet wilt have a longing aye to dwell
Within the beauty of His countenance.
And these two pains, so counter and so keen, —
The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him, —
Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory” (ll. 728-747)

Yes, after death the truest purgation on the way to joining God in heaven is to be “sick with love” (l. 731). It is the experience of longing to be with God, but being denied that joy for a while and the shame that comes from realizing that one still does not love him as he deserves to be loved.

We are not cut off from the dead. By our prayers we can assist them as they undergo that last stripping away of self-love and that final putting aside of any hesitancy to trust him unconditionally.

So let us pray; let us pray for those who were dear to us in this life, our family members, our friends, and those who did us good; let us pray for those at whose passing out of this world we were present; and let us pray for those who are forgotten and have no one here to pray for them.
V. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord
R. And let perpetual light shine upon them.
V. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
R. Amen


Official newspaper of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
Contra Costa counties.