Fr Christopher Colven: Praying for the Departed

Given at the Requiem Mass as part of the London Eucharistic Octave 2021 on Friday 17th September 2021

A 7th century Irish monk called Saint Lomman wrote a delightful devotional piece called “The Praises of Mary”. This is part of it: “O Mary, when our eyes close in their last sleep, and open to behold your Son, the Just Judge, and the angel opens the Book and the Enemy accuses us: in that terrible hour, come to our aid. Be with us. When death came to Joseph, you and your Son were with him; your Son to judge, you to console. O happy Joseph. When death comes for us, be near us too. O Mary, when we are held captive in the place of atonement, plead for us and visit us, that we may find consolation in your presence. Stretch forth your hand to help us; deliver us from bondage. We are your children, you are our Mother. As little children, we come to you – we know no fear”.

Our belief as Christians is that in Baptism we are initiated into the Paschal Mystery – that the saving events of Jesus’s life, his passion and death, his resurrection and glorification, are not just historical events but continue as present realities. The waters of the font effect what they promise, and we are incorporated, through them, into the living Christ. As the Letter to the Colossians says: “since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand. Let your thoughts be on heavenly things not on the things that are on the earth, because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God”.

Tonight as we offer Christ’s own prayer, the perfect prayer in the re-presentation of his sacrificial love on Calvary, we do so for those who have died in the current pandemic, in this country and in every part of the world. All those souls now in the nearer presence of God. All those souls coming face to face with their Creator. The intention of this Mass confronts us with the nature of the human condition – called to be saints, every single one of us, but all falling short of our vocation: not one of us who has not soiled our baptismal robe: each one of us a sinner, unable to face death with equanimity. 

At the end of this earthly life we know that we shall have to face judgement, to give account of our stewardship. Instinctively, we realise that this cannot be a comfortable experience as we face up to ourselves as we really are, as we might and should have been. All pretence and excuse stripped away as we take Saint Paul’s words on ourselves: “I cannot understand my own behaviour. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate”.

But hope is central to Christian faith. The Father of Jesus is none other than the source of all that is merciful and, though each of us must live out the consequences of our fallen nature, and we will all die as sinners, our weakness is met, and more than matched, by God’s desire to forgive and to reconcile. A merciful judgment, we pray, will allow us the time and space in which we might be conformed more perfectly to Christ. This process we describe as Purgatory. The Church’s authentic teaching about purgatory is very far from what the common mind has made of it. Dante has much to answer for with his imagery of God’s beloved sons and daughters undergoing some sort of elongated penal servitude. “That will be another coal in purgatory” I was told after some childhood misdemeanour. Suffering there must be as each one of us comes to terms with what one of our hymns describes as “themisusing of thy grace, our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim” but as that same hymn continues: “between our sins and their reward, we set the passion of thy Son, our Lord”.

Purgatory is essentially a positive experience through which those judged worthy of the eternal vison of God, the life of the blessed, are finally, totally immersed in Christ and become what they should always have been. Any growth involves discomfort, even pain: it is never easy to acknowledge failure and to accept the necessity for change. We do have to have, in Saint Paul’s words, a share in the sufferings of Christ which are still to be undergone for the sake of his Body the Church. Purgatory is not Benidorm but it is an ever deepening entrance into the mystery of the One in whom all things are: “to be reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and everything on earth, when he made peace by his death on the cross” (Colossians 1:19). 

A Czech theologian, Ladilas Boros, offers a significant insight when he writes that Christ looks: “with utter love and complete graciousness upon those who come to him. At the same time his gaze burns right into the innermost parts of that human existence. To encounter God in Christ’s eyes of fire is the highest fulfilment of our capacity for love and also the most fearful suffering our nature ever has to bear. Seen in this way purgatory would be the passage, which we effect in our final decision, through the purifying fire of divine love. The encounter with Christ would be our purgatory”.

However we envisage it, in Saint Lomman’s phrase, purgatory must be “a “place of atonement”,  an experience of “the purifying fire of divine love”, a place where each soul will need that solidarity in communion which binds the whole Church as one. It is our duty to pray for those who have gone before us in faith, to support them as best we can as they learn the lessons they have not been able to learn in this life. Of course, we remember especially before God our own loved ones and those who have helped us in our own journey of faith, but our responsibility is wider. As Catholics with a sense of the universal invitation to salvation, we should ask God’s mercy on those whose passing has been sudden and unprepared, those who have no one else to pray for them in death. 

The most effective prayer we can ever offer is, of course, the one we are offering now, the Mass –  the Holy Sacrifice which we know to be the perfect act of intercession as it is Christ’s own prayer to his Father in absolute love and obedience. Tonight we offer this Prayer of all prayers for all who have died in the current pandemic, asking for them a merciful judgment, a speedy journey and peace at the last.  We ask, too, that those who mourn their passing may be consoled.

Think, O Lord, in mercy on the souls of those, who, in faith gone from us, now in death repose. Here mid stress and conflict, toil can never cease; There, the warfare ended, bid them rest in peace”.

“Often were they wounded, in the deadly strife; heal them good Physician with the balm of life. Every taint of evil, frailty and decay, good and gracious Saviour, cleanse and purge away”.

“Rest eternal grant them, after weary fight; shed on them the radiance of thy heavenly light. Lead them onward, upward, to that holy place, where thy saints made perfect, gaze upon thy face”.

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