The Profit to Be Gained from Praying for Holy Souls

Sometimes you hear stories too good to be true.

This was just such a story. It returned to my mind this month as it involves a spiritual work of mercy—praying for the dead. Indeed, as I was to discover, the reported tale was even better than I had been told.

We all know what we should do. Like the Maccabee warriors surveying the battlefield, we know we should pray for the dead. The month of November is a time set aside by the Church for a more intense living of this practice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Lumen Gentium, reminds us:

In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honoured with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins,’ she offers her suffrages for them.

The Catechism then adds:

Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.

The intercession of the Holy Souls for us is something many of us miss. We see the souls in Purgatory, perhaps, as lying in a coma upon celestial hospital beds. They are those to whom things are done, for whom prayer and supplication are offered, but who are ultimately removed from us, somehow distant. This ‘distance’ may well be part of the residue of the Protestant culture that many of us in the English-speaking world live, aware of the assaults from that culture upon the doctrine of Purgatory from sixteenth century onwards.

Towards the end of 1528, a fourteen-page pamphlet called A Supplication for Beggars was published anonymously in Antwerp. Its author was an English Protestant, Simon Fish, living in exile in the Low Countries. Reflecting, the new spirit abroad in Europe, he attacked, among other things, the doctrine of Purgatory. In brief, there was nothing any earthly person or ritual could do for the dead. The ancient practice of offering Masses for the Dead was nothing but a moneymaking enterprise devised by cunning priests. Rather than arguing theological questions, the pamphlet appealed merely to the materialist instincts of the reader—the desire not to spend money—and, needless to say, proved very popular. The soon-to-be Lord Chancellor of England was to reply. At that time, Thomas More was a man of 50 years and conscious that the tide was turning. The hour of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli had come. More was an increasingly lonely voice, at least in England, in repulsing the theological currents that were now sweeping towards the British Isles and that were envisioning a new society built upon a new religion.

Whereas A Supplication for Beggars appealed to the base motive of saving money that might otherwise have been offered in Mass stipends, More’s response, The Supplication of Souls, published a year later, lifted hearts and minds to an altogether different vision. He argued that what was at stake in this practice of offering Mass for the Holy Souls was not simply an exchange marked by the gift of money but the continued communion with kith and kin now departed. To neglect offering prayers, and especially the Sacrifice of the Mass, for the Holy Souls was a failure of charity as grave as denying a child food, a neighbor help, or an elderly person warmth and companionship. In essence, it was to forget, he argued, what it means to be part of humanity and that our human obligations and bonds stretch all the way into the realm of the next world.

Without too much difficulty, More demolishes the arguments presented in the heretical work. He goes further, though, and shows the writer to be mean-spirited. Those who loosen and then deny the spiritual bonds that exist between the living and the dead also corrode the ties that bind together all living now upon this common earth. In identifying this, the Englishman revealed the truth at the heart of the nascent new religion then proposed: namely, that it would initiate society upon a long march downwards into a cold barbarism.

Thomas More’s The Supplication of Souls concludes with the Holy Souls directly imploring the reader as follows:

Remember what kin ye and we be together; what familiar friendship hath ere this been between us; what sweet words ye have spoken and what promise you have made us. Let now your words appear and your fair promise be kept.

Now, dear friends, remember how nature and Christendom bindeth you to remember us. If any point of your old favor, any piece of your old love, any kindness of kindred, any care of acquaintance, any favor of old friendship, any spark of charity, any tender point of pity, any regard of nature, any respect of Christendom be left in your breasts, let never the malice of a few fond fellows, a few pestilent persons borne toward priesthood, religion, and your Christian faith, raze out of your hearts the care of your kindred, all force of your old friends, and all remembrance of all Christian souls.

Remember our thirst while ye sit and drink; our hunger while ye be feasting; our restless watch while ye be sleeping; our sore and grievous pain while ye be playing; our hot burning fire while ye be in pleasure and sporting: so mote God make your offspring after remember you; so God keep you hence, or not long here, but bring you shortly to that bliss to which, for our Lord’s love, help you to bring us, and we shall set hand to help you thither to us.

More’s writing here highlights an aspect of the ancient devotion to the Holy Souls then current in Pre-Reformation England that is now conveniently forgotten.

Nevertheless, truth will out, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. More’s last line above, with its offer of a “helping hand,” leads us back to the story mentioned at the start. It is a simple enough tale. A man on a business trip visits a church and prays for the soul of a man he does not know and benefits in ways he could not have foreseen. As I said, it was a good tale, possibly an urban legend.

Intrigued, I traced its source to a back issue of The Times dated October 3, 1996, where on page 17 of that edition the following entry is found. As set out in that newspaper report, it appears that the age-old fears around material loss incurred in praying for the dead may be misplaced:

Hamburg: A Spanish businessman and devout Roman Catholic who stopped to pray at church during a trip to Stockholm ended up a millionaire, Bild reported yesterday.

The church was empty except for a coffin containing the remains of a man, so 35-year-old Eduardo Sierra knelt down and prayed for the deceased for 20 minutes, counting off the beads on his Rosary, the paper said.

Senor Sierra signed a condolence book placed by the coffin after he saw a note saying those who prayed for the dead man should enter their names and addresses. He noticed he was the first one to sign.

Several weeks later, Senor Sierra got a call from the Swedish capital informing him that he had inherited the fortune of the dead man, Jens Svenson, a 73-year-old property dealer with no close relatives.

Mr. Svenson had specified in his will that “whoever prays for my soul gets all my belongings,” Bild reported.

K. V. Turley

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K. V. Turley is a London based freelance writer and filmmaker with a degree in theology from the Maryvale Institute.

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