If one examines liturgical formulae to see how Catholics pray for the dead, one is struck by the specificity of intention, the delimited subject of these prayers — namely, baptized Christians. A much-loved prayer expresses it thus: “May the souls of the faithful departed (fidelium animae defunctorum), through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” As will be demonstrated below, the official liturgical books offer overwhelming evidence for this claim. First, however, let us consider what might be called the problem on the ground.
The Problem on the Ground
In many Ordinary Form Masses, communities pray for the dead in an entirely generic or undifferentiated manner. Consider an otherwise excellent book, Prayers of the Faithful for All Sundays, Solemnities, Major Feasts and Other Occasions, edited by Bishop Peter J. Elliott (New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing, 2009). Throughout the book, petitions are announced on behalf not only of the “faithful departed” (or variations on that theme: “all who have died in faith,” “all who sleep in Christ,” “the dead who have entered a state of purification,” “our dead,” “our departed brothers and sisters”), as is traditional, but also on behalf of “the dead” or “those who have died” with no specifying language whatsoever:
That the dead may rejoice forever in the house of the Lord… (p. 1); That the Son of Man may grant his salvation to those who have died… (p. 3); That the eternal light of salvation may shine upon those who have died (p. 6); That those who have died may find eternal rest… (p. 7); For our deceased relatives and friends, and all the departed, that they may be gathered into the eternal joy of their heavenly home… (p. 16); That the dead may be cleansed from all their sins… (p. 28); That the departed may taste and see the eternal goodness of God… (p. 39); That those who have died may live for ever in the God who is love (p. 66); That the dead may be called to perfect union with God for ever (p. 67); etc.
Although I have not tabulated the hundreds of petitions for the dead included in this volume, my impression from using the book is that the language goes about half of the time in the traditional direction and the other half of the time in the generic/undifferentiated direction.
An older book, The Prayer of the Faithful for Weekdays, ed. Eltin Griffin, O.Carm. (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1985; repr. 2003), exhibits a bigger problem in that it rarely has the living faithful praying for the faithful departed at all. When it does, the language tends to be elegant and specific, but with occasional lapses into vapid inclusivism:
Bring all the dead into the light that no darkness can quench; may we all meet in joy with you (p. 59); That Jesus, who is our resurrection and life, may give peace for ever to all who have died (p. 292).
The problem was brought home to me when I was attending Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City one Sunday morning, and the deacon offered a public prayer for the deceased wife of the head of the Mormon church. This was, on any reading of it, an absurd petition to make, since the true Church of Jesus Christ has already defined that Mormons are not confessionally Christian and that their “baptism” is null and void.
In summary, at a Novus Ordo Mass we will frequently hear something like: “Let us pray for the dead…” or “For all who have died this week…” or “For all our departed loved ones… ”— with no specificity or delineation that we are praying for Christians or faithful who have died.
What’s the Big Deal?
To pray at the liturgy for someone who is either not known to have been a baptized Christian or known to have not been a baptized Christian, or to offer prayers “for the dead” in a completely generic way, without specifying that we are praying for departed brethren and servants of God, is not just a departure from custom; it implies and leads to theological error.
Those who are not Christian when they die cannot be saved; and the only people we know to be Christians in such a manner that we may publicly pray for them are those who were baptized or were formally seeking baptism (e.g., RCIA candidates). Someone who is neither baptized nor known to have been seeking baptism is simply not someone for whom we can publicly pray, as he or she is not known to be a member of the Mystical Body of Christ, and the liturgy of the Church is the prayer of the Mystical Body of Christ, the prayer of the Head and of the members in union with the Head. It is not the prayer of the non-members and it is only a prayer for non-members who have not yet departed from this world. Once non-members depart from this life, they are eternally non-members and they are never prayed for, either on earth or in heaven.
In short, we can and should pray for the living who are not yet joined with us, but we cannot pray for the dead who are not joined with us. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental reason why the Church’s formulas of prayer, stretching back as far as we have records and continuing right into the official liturgical books in use today, nearly always qualify the dead for whom we pray by indicating those who are servants or handmaids of God, those who are baptized, those who are united with the Son in a death like his (another reference to baptism), those who have faith (meaning at very least a votum implicitum for baptism), those on whom God has had mercy (in that they have received the effect of baptism prior to death), etc. — whatever the formula may be, it is never merely, without qualification, “the dead.”
Establishing the Fact
We can establish this fact by reviewing a number of liturgical texts from both the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, since they agree on this theological point, although the usus antiquior expresses it with greater clarity and frequency.
The Usus Antiquior
We begin with the usus antiquior, giving translations from the Baronius Missal.
Offertory. Accept, O holy Father, almighty and eternal God, this unspotted host, which I, Thine unworthy servant, offer to Thee . . . for all faithful Christians, both living and dead . . .
Roman Canon. Remember also, O Lord, Thy servants and handmaidens N. and N., who are gone before us with the sign of faith, and rest in the sleep of peace. To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshing coolness, light, and peace.
From the Requiem Mass on All Souls:
Collect. O God, the Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful: grant to the souls of Thy servants and handmaidens the remission of all their sins: that through pious supplications, they may obtain that pardon, which they have always desired.
Tract. Absolve, O Lord, the souls of all the faithful departed from every bond of sin. And by the help of Thy grace may they be enabled to escape the avenging judgment: and enjoy the bliss of everlasting light.
Offertory. O Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory, deliver the souls of all the faithful departed from the pains of hell and from the bottomless pit: deliver them from the lion’s mouth, that hell swallow them not up, that they fall not into darkness, but let the standard-bearer Holy Michael lead them into that holy light, which Thou didst promise to Abraham and to his seed. . . .
Secret. Mercifully regard, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the Sacrifice which we offer Thee for the souls of Thy servants and handmaidens: that to those to whom Thou didst grant the favour of the Christian Faith, Thou wouldst also grant due reward.
Preface. For to Thy faithful people, Lord, life is changed, not taken away; and when the home of this earthly sojourn is dissolved, an eternal dwelling is made ready in heaven.
From the Absolution and Burial:
Wherefore suffer not, we beseech Thee, the sentence Thou pronouncest in judgment upon one whom the faithful prayer of Christian people commends to Thee, to be a doom which shall crush him utterly. Rather succour him by Thy gracious favour, that he may escape Thine avenging justice who, in his lifetime, was signed with the seal of the holy Trinity.
Grant to Thy servant departed, O Lord, we beseech Thee, this favour, that he who desired to do Thy will may not receive punishment for his deeds; and that even as here on earth the true faith joined him to the ranks of the faithful, so in heaven by Thy mercy he may have fellowship with the choirs of Angels.
Other prayers could be cited, but that’s plenty to establish the point. From the earliest liturgical records down to the 1962 editio typica of the Missale Romanum, when Catholics of all places and times prayed for the dead, this is how they prayed.
The Ordinary Form
Drawing from the current ICEL translation of the Novus Ordo Missae:
Preface I for the Dead. Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.
Eucharistic Prayer I. Remember also, Lord, your servants N. and N., who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace. Grant them, O Lord, we pray, and all who sleep in Christ, a place of refreshment, light and peace.
Eucharistic Prayer II. Remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection, and all who have died in your mercy: welcome them into the light of your face.
Eucharistic Prayer II (in Masses for the Dead). Remember your servant N., whom you have called (today) from this world to yourself. Grant that he (she) who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection.
Eucharistic Prayer III. To our departed brothers and sisters and to all who were pleasing to you at their passing from this life, give kind admittance to your kingdom. There we hope to enjoy for ever the fullness of your glory through Christ our Lord, through whom you bestow on the world all that is good.
Eucharistic Prayer III (in Masses for the Dead). Remember your servant N. whom you have called (today) from this world to yourself. Grant that he (she) who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection, when from the earth he will raise up in the flesh those who have died, and transform our lowly body after the pattern of his own glorious body.
Eucharistic Prayer IV. Remember also those who have died in the peace of your Christ and all the dead, whose faith you alone have known.
The last text, from E.P. IV, is the most ambiguous of the lot, but inasmuch as it mentions the faith of the departed, it is asserting (in line with defined Catholic doctrine) that God knows if a man or woman died with a sufficiently explicit and living faith in Christ the Redeemer to have been a sharer in the fruits of Redemption. “All who have died in your mercy,” from E.P. II, is a similar kind of formula.
On November 2nd, All Souls:
Second Mass, Collect. O God, glory of the faithful and life of the just, by the Death and Resurrection of whose Son we have been redeemed, look mercifully on your departed servants, that, just as they professed the mystery of our resurrection, so they may merit to receive the joys of eternal happiness.
Second Mass, Prayer over the Offerings. Almighty and merciful God, by means of these sacrificial offerings wash away, we pray, in the Blood of Christ, the sins of your departed servants, for you purify unceasingly by your merciful forgiveness those you once cleansed in the waters of Baptism.
Third Mass, Postcommunion. Through these sacrificial gifts which we have received, O Lord, bestow on your departed servants your great mercy and, to those you have endowed with the grace of Baptism, grant also the fullness of eternal joy.
Again, other texts could be cited, but it is enough to point out that one can see two general trends. In the usus antiquior, the prayers for the dead are worded in such a way that there can be no doubt that the one being prayed for was a member of the Church through baptism. In the Novus Ordo, by contrast, most of the texts use qualifying language, either mentioning baptism explicitly or using words like “servant” or “handmaid,” but some texts are more generic and vague, although one can argue that the meaning is discernible from the context. In any case, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal removes all doubt when it says:
379. The Church offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ’s Pasch for the dead so that, since all the members of Christ’s Body are in communion with one another, what implores spiritual help for some, may bring comforting hope to others.
In order to benefit from the Eucharistic Sacrifice or any other liturgical action of Christ and His Church, a departed soul must already be in communion with Christ and His Church. This is the reason we pray for those souls.
What’s At Stake and What We Should Do
If one has followed the earlier theological reasoning about the very nature of the liturgy, one can see that the question of whom we pray for, and under what aspect or title, is a far from trivial matter. It goes the very heart of what it means to be a Christian, to be sanctified, to be graced with the very ability to reach heaven. It is not enough that Christ accomplished our Redemption on the Cross (objectively, one can say); we ourselves, each one of us, must actually (or subjectively) participate in it through faith and the sacraments, especially baptism. Without that actual participation in His Death and Resurrection, there is no salvation for us; and we do not, we cannot, find that participation apart from His Mystical Body, the Church, which, in her inner identity, is nothing other than perfect communion with Christ.
Thus, to ask what difference it makes whether we pray for (e.g.) “the dead” or “our dead,” “the departed” or “the faithful departed,” is precisely a test case of whether we adhere to the de fide doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside of the Church there is no salvation,” or have instead imbibed the poison of indifferentism, latitudinarianism, and false ecumenism, all of which involve a denial of Jesus Christ as the one Savior of mankind and the Catholic Church as His very Body in which all will be saved who are to be saved.
Two courses of action therefore suggest themselves. First, at a minimum, the Prayer of the Faithful or General Intercessions in an Ordinary Form liturgy must be written out with care so that we are raising up prayers for “the faithful departed,” “our brothers and sisters in Christ,” etc., and if a published version is used, it should be reviewed ahead of time (and corrected, if need be).
Second, we desperately need a renewal of catechesis in this area, because it touches on fundamentals of the Catholic Faith such as the necessity of belonging to Christ and the Church for salvation, the necessity of dying in a state of sanctifying grace in order to be admitted to the beatific vision (whether immediately or after purgation), the eternity of hell and the impenitence of the damned. These truths are not sufficiently known or preached nowadays, and given the truth of the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, the way we are praying for the dead, week in and week out, will either confirm true doctrine or reinforce false doctrine.
Animae omnium fidelium defunctorum, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace. Amen.
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