In a letter of October 6, 1956, Flannery O’Connor wrote that “part of Purgatory must be the realization of how little it would have to take to make a vice into a virtue.” She went on to remark that “the Communion of Saints has something to do with the fact that the burdens we bear because of someone else, we can also bear for someone else.” Such remarks make us think of how important it is to look rightly on our lot, both its nearness either to the best or the worst and its hidden opportunities for grace.
A day after the death of the former Jesuit General, Father Pedro Arrupe, an announcement was placed on the community’s bulletin board about a memorial Mass to be said for him in Holy Trinity Church down the street. Such a Mass is expected. Indeed, Jesuits are required to say special Masses for the repose of the soul of each member of the order who dies, and particularly for major superiors. Religious superiors, it goes without saying, have had a tougher time of it than the rest of us rather pedestrian types, no doubt because superiors had to deal with us, what with original sin and all.
I would not have thought too much of this occasion but for the (to me) most peculiar wording of the purpose of this particular Mass for Father Arrupe. Father Arrupe, I confess, was not one of my heroes, but I have no problem about being concerned with his soul, with his status before God, something we owe to all of those who die in the Lord.
This particular Mass (it may have been called a “Liturgy” or a “Celebration,” I forget) was billed as a Mass “in thanksgiving for his Life and Ministry.” I thought to myself, “we Christians do not pray at a Mass for someone from our faith on the occasion of his death in `Thanksgiving for his Life and Ministry,’ do we?” We pray for the salvation of his soul, or that he be received in the general Resurrection.
As I was mulling over the implicit theology of this shift of emphasis from the eternal status of someone who has died, from his status before God to a comment on his record on earth, I ran into a friend walking down the aisle. I stopped him, a good monk. I said, “Look, when I die, I want you to be sure that they do not pray in thanksgiving for my life and ministry but for my salvation.” He laughed in agreement and told me, heavy smoker that he is, that he didn’t want to be put on life supporting equipment either, just let him go.
Just for curiosity, in any case, I went back and read the prayers in my Breviary for the Office of the Dead. The Collect of the Morning Prayer reads, “Lord, hear our prayers. By raising your Son from the dead, You have given us faith. Strengthen our hope that Don Pedro, our brother, shall share in His resurrection.” That seemed worth praying for and summed up what the Christian thinks about death, whether that of Don Pedro or anyone else.
This—was it slight?—shift in the emphasis of a Mass for the Dead made me curious. I decided to look at a couple of other rituals and prayer books that I had scattered about my room.
In my 1961 Ritual, the following Prayer is found to be said at graveside:
Oh God, by whose mercy rest is given to the souls of the faithful, in Your kindness grant forgiveness of sins to Your servants and to all those who rest in Christ here and everywhere else; so that, set free from sin, they may be happy with you forever. Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.
Again, the emphasis was on forgiveness of sins and everlasting happiness, which is what we most want.
In the Book of Common Prayer, for the burial service, we find:
O Merciful God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the resurrection and the life; in Whom whosoever believeth, shall live, though he died; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Him, shall not die eternally; Who also hath taught us, by His holy Apostle Saint Paul, not to be sorry, as men without hope, for those who sleep in Him; We humbly beseech Thee, 0 Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in Him; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in Thy sight.
Such a prayer not merely summarizes the teaching on the relation of this life to the Resurrection, but applies this teaching to the dead before us while associating all of us within the same lot and need of God’s graces.
Finally, the Prayer for the Dead in the Russian Orthodox Church in America reads:
O God, whose property it is ever to have mercy and to spare, we beseech Thee on behalf of the soul of Thy servant whom Thou halt called out of this world; look upon him with pity and let him be conducted by the holy angels to paradise, his true country. Grant that he who believed in Thee and hoped in Thee may not be left to suffer, but may be admitted to eternal joys. [Emphasis added.]
None of these classic collects and prayers, it will be noticed, assumes that we can be indifferent to the fate of the dead, nor do they neglect to tell us what we want to be their final end, that is, personal resurrection following the Resurrection of Christ. Each prayer acknowledges our sins and recognizes that what makes the final difference is the forgiveness that we receive from God.
What about our “lives and ministries,” the things we do or do not do on this earth, our public record, so to speak? I suppose we can thank God for them, once we recognize that we can never be quite sure of the eternal standing of our lives and ministries. The traditional prayers of the Church always were hesitant, in awe at the mystery of our status before God. We were not so sure everyone was ipso facto saved simply because he died. That would be a gross underestimation of our freedom and its dangers. Nor were we sure that the famous and exalted lived lives worthy of ultimate praise and reward. No doubt we could piously hope so, but the emphasis at a Christian funeral was not on the public record, as it were, of the dead but on his salvation, his standing before God.
“The great and anxious question that meets us,” John Henry Newman remarked in a sermon, “is what is to become of us after this life?” In a real sense, the prayers at a funeral—”lex orandi est lex credendi“—are designed to teach us the Christian answer to this question that Newman himself called “great and anxious.”
Just to make one more inquiry about this issue, I decided to call a friend, sort of to check what the person in the pews might have to say to all this jazz. So I described the stated purpose of the Mass “in Thanksgiving for Life and Ministry.” “Well,” my friend replied with some amusement, “if I were Father Arrupe I would not want them all down there fussing about praising my deeds. I would want them to pray for the repose of my soul.” Precisely.
In his audience on All Souls’ Day in 1988, John Paul II asked, to this point, “What do we seek, then, for our departed brothers and sisters? What do we hope for? We pray that they may be freed from all evil and suffering. It is the hope inspired by the abiding word of Christ and by the transcendent message of Sacred Scripture.”
Part of Purgatory must be the realization of how little it would have to take to make a vice into a virtue.
Strengthen our hope that Don Pedro, our brother, shall share in His resurrection.
Oh God, by Whose mercy rest is given to the souls of the faithful, in Your kindness grant forgiveness of sins to Your servants.
Grant that he who believes in Thee and hopes in Thee may not be left to suffer, but may be admitted to eternal joys.