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Many settling for graveside prayers only / Why do we pray for the dead?

Posted By October 28, 2013 | 1:59 pm | Featured Article #2
St. John's Cemetery, Worcester

Photo by Tanya Connor
St. John's Cemetery, Worcester Photo by Tanya Connor

By Patricia O’Connell
CFP Correspondent

The number of funeral Masses has fallen in recent years. In 2010, there were 3,167 Catholic burials in the diocese.
Three years later, that number dropped to 2,477.
It’s something that’s concerning, because there are many benefits to have a funeral Mass, both for the living and the deceased, according to Father Richard Reidy, a former pastor who presently serves as vicar general. The trend is so disturbing that Bishop McManus has written a pastoral letter on the issue.
“It appears that in a growing number of cases families may settle for prayers at the funeral home or graveside while omitting a funeral Mass,” Father Reidy said. “That is unfortunate because of the spiritual benefits that come with a funeral Mass.”
“Virtually every death brings a sense of loss, grief and frustration for those who love the person who is no longer physically in their midst,” he stated, noting that viewing death through the lens of faith is what gives people hope for “the prospect of a joyous reunion.”
“That reunion is possible only through Jesus Christ, because of his Passion, death and Resurrection, the spiritual fruits of which are present at Mass,” he added.
Father Reidy said funeral Masses offer great benefits for the souls of the deceased, as the living offer Christ’s sacrifice to the Father, ask God to purify them of their sins and admit them to heaven.
Unfortunately, he noted, it can happen that people who were very faithful to the Mass during their lifetimes don’t have a funeral Mass, if their survivors don’t recognize its importance. “That is particularly sad,” he said.
“People should make clear their wishes in making arrangements with the funeral home and family members,” he advised.
He said this is particularly important to do nowadays, when not all family members may be Catholic or practicing Catholics.
Father Reidy said funeral Masses are available even if the person who died wasn’t practicing their faith. “The baptized are members of the Church and they’re always beloved by the Church,” he stressed. “Absent public scandal, the reasons that kept them from coming to church regularly are not reasons to forgo a funeral Mass.”
“All the more is the need for the Mass for the person and their soul,” he added.
Father Reidy said cost is one factor he’s heard in the decision not to have a Mass. He said the $300 stipend, of which $100 goes to the organist, $100 to the cantor, $65 to the parish and $35 to the priest, could be waived. “The poor are not to be denied fitting funerals,” he noted.
In his time serving as pastor of St. Paul Cathedral, there were funeral Masses where only one or two people, in addition to the undertakers, were present. However, he said these were “some of the most moving funerals.”
“They were poignant reminders (of) how precious every single person is to God. Jesus died for us all but he would have died for any one of us as well,” said Father Reidy. “At times the deceased may have outlived family and friends or been forgotten by everybody else, but they are never forgotten by God. We should not forget his merciful love made manifest through the funeral Mass.”
Father John F. Madden, pastor of St. John Parish in Worcester, said there are “definitely” more services just at the funeral home, where families invite him to say prayers near the casket, but don’t want a church Mass.
This is a trend, he noticed, that’s accelerated in the last few years, if not over the past decade.
He said this is unfortunate, as families who attend a funeral can then look back upon that time as a moment of grace.
“Jesus died for us on the cross and rose for us to live forever and they can continue to go back to that,” he said of the memories of a funeral liturgy.
Msgr. Francis J. Scollen, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Worcester, confirmed that he’s also seeing fewer funerals. “We have less than we did before, but we still have a lot,” he said.
Not too long ago, he explained, his parish had about 100 funeral Masses each year, a number that’s recently dipped to between 70 and 80.
Some families, he said, choose to have prayers only at the funeral home. He noted a sentiment of people not wanting to be buried from a church, or their loved ones opting out of a church funeral, because the deceased didn’t attend Mass.
“I think money is an issue for some people,” he said, adding that, “that’s not an issue here.”
“Most of the churches around here will say, ‘If you don’t have the money, don’t worry about it,’” he added.
Msgr. Scollen said funeral Masses are teachable moments for the people in the pews. He said he tries to make them all feel at home as he talks about the Holy Eucharist.
He has noticed that mourners, even those who don’t practice the faith, still have a sense that their loved one’s soul lives on.
Even when a family opts not to have a funeral Mass, he schedules a memorial Mass for the deceased on a Sunday morning. He invites the family members.
“Sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t,” he said.


A program from the TV Ministry: A Conversation with Bishop McManus: Bishop McManus and Father Richard Reidy speak with Ray Delisle on funeral practices.

Why do we pray for the dead?

By Msgr. Robert K. Johnson
Special to The CFP

Why do we as Catholics pray for the dead?
For as long as humans have walked the earth, one dimension of our experience has remained fairly constant: We experience loss, grief, and a sadness through separation at the death of someone we love.
In the face of death we have developed types of leave-taking, rituals, tangible expressions which put closure on a life that has been marked by relationships with others and that carry meaning through the bonds of love.
For Christians, our rituals, and particularly our prayers, are based upon the center of our faith, namely the Paschal Mystery, which is the life, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ. It is in and through Christ’s death on the cross and rising from the dead that sin and death have been destroyed as the final end for the person who draws near in faith.
Through the sacrament of baptism, the Christian is incorporated into the Paschal Mystery bearing the sign of the cross and inheriting the hope of a like resurrection.


Beginning with our ancestors in faith, the Book of Maccabees taken from the Hebrew Scriptures reminds us that:
“Judas, the ruler of Israel, took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:43-46)
Thus the promise and fidelity of God even in the face of death was a part of the mind and heart of God’s people as they strove to live out the covenant that had been formed with them.
We are told that Judas “made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from sin.” Looking to our ancestors in faith, they knew of the promises of God and exercised their prayer according to that promise, knowing that their prayer before God in the face of death assisted the person who had died to be freed from sin in order that they might know the fullness of eternal life.


In the Order of Christian Funerals the Church reveals that ultimately we pray for the dead because our faith teaches us that “at the death of a Christian, whose life of faith was begun in the waters of baptism and strengthened at the eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds that we have forged in life.” (OCF #4)
We Catholics have a long tradition which has shown the importance, centrality and power of prayer, particularly for those who have died. The Church explains in the Catechism that “from the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.” (CCC #1032)
The importance of our praying for the dead is rooted first in our firm and certain belief in the everlasting life promised in Jesus’ teachings, made manifest in his Paschal Mystery, his death and resurrection, and foreshadowed by his disciple’s experience and testimony that God had raised him from the dead.
After death, even though separated from our earthly body, we yet continue a personal existence. It is as living persons that God invites us into a relationship whose life transcends death.


Our praying for the dead has further origins in our belief in the communion of saints. Members of this community who are living often assist each other in faith by prayers and other forms of spiritual support. Christians who have died continue to be members of the communion of saints. We believe that we can assist them by our prayers, and they can assist us by theirs. But why pray for them? There is no need to pray for those who have died and gone straight to heaven. Those in heaven are counted among the saints and do not need our prayers, we need theirs.
For us Catholics, Nov.  2 is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed or All Souls’ Day, the special day in the liturgical year set aside by the Church to pray for the dead.
This commemoration helps us remember that most often we don’t live as perfect human beings and most often we do not die as perfect human beings. Some who die are imperfectly purified of their sinfulness, and so the Church reminds us of the reality of purgation.
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (CCC #1030)
The Church gives the name “purgatory” to this time of purification of the elect. For centuries, Catholics have known that purgatory is the intermediate place of temporary punishment and purification, and that the length of time spent there is based upon the number and seriousness of one’s sins. The Church defined this doctrine at the Second Council of Lyons (1274), the Council of Florence (1439) and the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory reflects its understanding of the communion of saints. We are connected to the saints in heaven, the saints-in-waiting in purgatory and other believers here on earth. Prayers for the deceased are a means of assisting these holy souls on their way to heaven.
It is our firm belief that our prayer for those who have died is immensely efficacious in the journey of the soul and the time of purgation. Consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian tradition, the Catholic Church has taught for centuries that our prayers serve as an aid to those who have died, and the premier prayer to offer for their intention is the Eucharist, the holy sacrifice of the Mass.  For the Mass makes the redemptive sacrifice of Christ present again on the altar and, in God’s gracious providence, allows you to ask that this redemptive power be applied to the one for whom you pray.
And so on this All Souls’ Day, or any time throughout the month of November, please consider reserving some time to pray for the dead.

– Msgr. Johnson is director of the diocesan Office for Divine Worship.




Almighty God and Father, it is our certain faith that your Son, who dies on the cross, was raised from the dead, the first fruits of all who have
fallen asleep. Grant that through this mystery your servants who have gone to their rest in Christ, may share in the Joy of the resurrection. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.
And let perpetual light
shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

May the souls of all the
faithful departed, through the mercy of God,
rest in peace.