The English poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, devastated by the sudden death of his dear friend Arthur Hallam, composed much of his poetry in an attempt to deal with his own grief at the loss of his beloved friend. In the final pages of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the dying King Arthur looks at Sir Bedivere, the last surviving Knight of the Round Table, and pleads,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
Most Protestants immediately reject the idea of praying for someone who has already died. Their rationale, seemingly quite reasonable, is that, once a person has died, their fate in the after-life has already been determined. There is no point in praying for them now; what is done, is done. This is not the case for Catholic Christians. In saying that, I do mean just Roman-Catholic Christians, but all Catholic Christians. It is true that, in the Roman-Catholic Church, All Souls’ Day, November 2nd, is a day set aside to pray for all those close to us to have died because prayers for the departed, especially requiem masses, help speed a departed soul’s exit from purgatory and eventual entrance into Heaven. Roman-Catholics, however, are not the only Christians who pray for their deceased loved one and, in fact, the idea of praying for the departed pre-dates the concept of Purgatory by hundreds of years and exists in places and traditions of the Church that have never ever embraced any concept of Purgatory. Beyond that, the evidence of Christians interceding on behalf of the deceased is seen in many of the greatest Church Fathers and even in Holy Scripture itself.
In his second epistle to Timothy, St. Paul mentions his fellow laborer Onesiphorus, about whom the Apostle states,
“The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me. The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day—and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus.” (1:16-18)
Similarly, near the end of that same epistle, St. Paul writes that Timothy should “Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus.” (4:19) These are the only times Onesiphorus is mentioned in the Bible and he is exclusively referred to in the past tense. Likewise, there is no suggestion that Timothy should greet Onesiphorus himself, only his household. Clearly, Onesiphorus has already died at the time of composition of this letter and St. Paul has, himself, prayed that the Lord would have mercy upon him even though he has already departed this life. The Apostle Paul is interceding on behalf of his departed co-laborer.
Inscriptions in the Roman catacombs suggest the practice continued from the earliest days of the Church in Rome. Catacomb inscriptions often contain prayers along the lines of “May his soul rest in peace,” “May God grant peace to the soul of Alexander (as an example),” or “May he live among the Saints.” These too are prayers inscribed on behalf of those within the catacomb tombs. The late second century bishop Abercius of Heirapolis inscribed these words on his own tomb prior to his death: “…May everyone who is accord with this and understands it pray for Abercius.” Tertullian of Carthage declared that it was a duty of a widow to pray for the soul of her husband, stating,
“Indeed, she prays for his soul, and requests refreshment for him meanwhile, and fellowship (with him) in the first resurrection; and she offers (her sacrifice) on the anniversaries of his falling asleep. For, unless she does these deeds, she has in the true sense divorced him…” (On Monogamy, X:5-6)
An even greater testimony to the pervasiveness and orthodoxy of prayers for the deceased is found in St. Augustine’s magnum opus The Confessions. In chapter 13 of Book 9, St. Augustine praises his mother for her virtue but ultimately begs intercession on her behalf and says, “I know that she acted mercifully, and from the heart forgave her debtors their debts; do Thou also forgive her debts, whatever she contracted during so many years since the water of salvation. Forgive her, O Lord, forgive her, I beseech You; enter not into judgment with her.”
St. Augustine’s prayer would evoke a reference to St. Matthew’s Gospel wherein Jesus states, “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” (St. Matthew 12:32) This passage is one of the few that is used to establish the Roman-Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, but the two issues are not, as some suggest, inexorably linked. The Eastern Orthodox churches have never accepted or endorsed any doctrine related to Purgatory yet, nevertheless, have a very elaborate and ornate liturgy involving praying for the departed.
St. Basil the Great, the Cappadocian Father and one of the four Doctors of the Eastern Church, said this in his Third Kneeling Prayer at Pentecost:
“On this perfect and salutary Feast, make us worthy to utter supplications in favor of those imprisoned in Hades, O Lord, for You promised to grant relief to the dead from the afflictions besetting them, and to send down consolation and repose upon them. Accept then our prayers, give rest to the souls of your departed servants, in a place of delight and refreshment, where there is no pain, sorrow or sighing; establish them in peace and joy in the mansions of the just. O Lord, the dead send up no praise to You, nor do those who dwell in Hades dare to offer glory to You: but we the living will bless You, and send up our supplications and sacrifices for their souls and our own: for You are the Peace of our souls and bodies, and we send up glory to You, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever. Amen.”
Finally, the earliest extant liturgies include prayers for the deceased. In the Liturgy of St. James, perhaps the oldest extant liturgy, we find this passage included in what we would consider the Prayers of the People: “[For] the rest of the fathers and brethren that have fallen asleep aforetime.” This tenet of the Catholic faith is witnessed even in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer where the celebrant offered this prayer: “We commend unto thy mercye (O Lorde) all other thy servauntes, which are departed hence from us, with the signe of faith, and nowe do reste in the slepe of peace: Graunt unto them, we beseche thee, thy mercy, and everlasting peace, and that, at the day of the generall resurreccion, we and all they which bee of the misticall body of thy sonne, may altogether be set on his right hand, and heare that his most ioyfull voice.” Were one to investigate the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, they would find many references to prayers for the departed. In the Burial of the Dead virtually all of the collects and all of the commendatory prayers (including a blessing) are, in fact, prayers for someone who has already died.
Prayers for the departed are an aspect of that faith which has been handed down by the Apostles and has been upheld by the Church Universal throughout all ages. The practice is Biblically supported by multiple verses and historically testified to by catacomb and funeral inscriptions from the pre-Constantinian era of the Church. The Church Fathers from the obscure Abercius of Hierapolis to Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. Basil the Great, and others lend their support to this tenet of faith and, finally, liturgies both Eastern and Anglican also testify to this matter.
We may not quite understand why and it may not fit into our notion of death and judgement, but Christians throughout all ages have prayed for their beloved departed. Take a few moments today when you go to the Lord in prayer and ask him to look with favor on your loved ones who have already passed out of this life. God is not bound by human concepts like “time.” Who is to say that your prayers for a loved one today might not have brought them to a saving knowledge of Christ decades ago? Besides, as the poet says, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”
O God, the Maker and Redeemer of all believers: Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son; that on the day of his appearing they may be manifested as your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. Amen.
For a collection of traditional Anglican prayers for the departed visit this page.