Debt to the Dead
ANSWERS from SAINT ANDREW’S
Published on October 22-23, 2011 in the Parish Bulletin of Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
Question: I was speaking with a friend about the death of another friend and about praying for the souls of the deceased. The friend then asked me about Purgatory and why we Catholics pray for the souls of the deceased. I have to admit that I could not say where or why the teaching or tradition of Purgatory was established. Is it even found in the Bible?
— Perturbed by Purgatory
Answer: You can tell your friend that the tradition of praying for the dead is not a Catholic invention; it is something that we have received from the Jews. We first find it mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46 when Judas Maccabeus discovers that his fallen comrades had worn pagan amulets under their tunics (cf. 2 Mc. 12:40-42). Judas takes up a collection for an expiatory sacrifice in Jerusalem on behalf of the fallen (2 Mc. 12:43). We are told that “in doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 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 absolved from their sin” (2 Mc. 12:43-46).
Protestants often disregard this passage, mostly because they don’t include the two books of the Maccabees in their list of the Hebrew Scriptures even though they are the same books that recount the origin of that very Hebrew holy day: Hanukkah (cf. 2 Mc. 1:18-36). But, whether it is considered biblical or not, this passage still is historical evidence that, even before the birth of Christ, the Jews had offered prayers and sacrifices for the dead, even the sinful dead.
The Catholic Church has kept this “excellent and noble” practice in Her treasury of Tradition. I suppose that we Catholics do so out of a sense of debt to the dead: we feel that we owe it to them to continue to plead to God on their behalf. We know that our dead were good enough not to be damned to Hell. But, we also realize that some were far from sinless to go straight to Heaven. And, if there were anything that we could do to atone for their unforgiven faults, we would not hesitate to appeal to God’s generosity so that He Himself might complete the unfinished business of their salvation.
We Catholics believe in a God of second chances, a God who gives each his just reward and punishment but whose mercy also provides that last chance to enter the joy of Heaven. Purgatory is the name that we give to that final chance to be freed from those ‘little’ sins that still hold us back from God. And, as it is while we are living so will it be after we are dead: none of us have to do it alone. We can count on the Church—the communion of saints—to cry to Christ for compassion so that we too might share in His Life.