Recently, the mother of a St. Malachi Center Board member died and Anita Branan, the Director, suggested the Board acknowledge the death in some way, since the funeral was out of town. She discussed this with several Board members, who agreed that sending flowers on behalf of the Board was an acceptable way of recognizing a person’s death and offering condolences, it might not be the most appropriate way. With further discussion, all agreed to have a Mass offered at St. Malachi for the repose of her soul. Why? Because Larry Gregg is a Deacon and they concluded that offering a Mass for his mother would be what he would most want and appreciate.
Not too many years ago, the above discussion would never have taken place. The decision would have been immediate and automatic: the St. Malachi Center Board would have recognized her death with a Mass.
For many decades, a parish could expect that, soon after a funeral, a family member would come to the office with a stack of Mass cards to schedule Masses for the person who had just died. Most parishes tried to schedule a Mass about a month after the individual’s death (known as a Month’s Mind Mass). Often, the family would wait some months before there was an “open” date for a Mass to be scheduled because there were so many requests for Masses. In large parishes, the parish bulletin would announce when the Mass calendar for the following year would be opened; usually, within a few days, every available Mass intention would be scheduled for the following year (most parishes wisely held some dates in reserve to accommodate the requests that would come for those who would die during the year, so there could be a Month’s Mind Mass.)
This practice has declined dramatically. At St. Malachi – and many other parishes (so other priests tell me) – there are few, if any, requests for Masses after a funeral. A family member might request a Mass on the anniversary of a death and/or a birthday, but usually few other Masses.
Why the change?
I suspect there are several reasons. One is that the practice of designating a charity/charities which the deceased and/or the family support to receive memorial donations to honor the person who has died has become more common.
However, I believe another, deeper, reason for the decline in Mass requests for a person who has died is because of a change in people’s attitude and religious belief. I believe that Catholics overwhelmingly believe that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) In addition, preaching on Sundays and at funerals has, correctly, emphasized God’s mercy, forgiveness and compassion and also the hope and promise of Christ’s resurrection. These are positive developments.
At the same time, less positively, I have noticed that more people seem to consider the concept of purgatory to be a old-fashioned, antiquated relic of pre-Vatican II theology and piety. People seem to think “God is loving, understanding and forgiving, so God understands us, is compassionate about our weaknesses and forgives our sins immediately. So when most people die, they must go straight to heaven.” From this perspective, there seems little reason or need to pray for someone after death.
Purgatory is not about punishment; it is about purification. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it this way: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (#1030)
A bit of reflection will help make sense of the idea. If you died right now, at this moment, how much would you be leaving undone – not in the Bucket List sense of “things I always wanted to do in my life” but in the sense of “unfinished business that is my responsibility”? Is there anyone that you know you’ve hurt, any relationship that is damaged, that you have not yet made whole? What about the damage you’ve done or harm you’ve caused that cannot be undone? If you’re honest with yourself, do you feel “I need to clean up my act” in some ways to be the person you’re supposed to be? That is why purgatory is needed and that’s what purgatory is about – taking care of our unfinished business and cleaning up our act, so that we’re truly ready.
“The Church assists those in Purgatory through prayer and especially the Eucharist in their final process of purification. Offering Masses for the deceased is a most powerful way of aiding them. November 2 each year, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day), is a day for special remembrance and prayer for the dead.” (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, pg. 154)
When someone we love has died, let’s not just presume that person is in heaven. Let’s love them enough to keep praying for them. And perhaps have a Mass offered for them.