The Principal Catholic Practices, Chapter 11 – Spiritual Flowers for the Dead

The Principal Catholic Practices, by Father George Thomas SchmidtTemporal Punishment after Death. Prayers for the Dead.

When Leopold, King of the Belgians, died, many devout hypocrites took it upon themselves to heap abuse upon the head of the deceased monarch. The newspapers at the time went out of their way to revile his name, and some preachers brazenly declared from their pulpits that Leopold had been condemned to hell. It was the time when the world was horrified by the accounts of the alleged abuses in the Belgian Congo. We were told that the natives were treated worse than beasts; that for disobedience and similar failings the workers in the rubber groves were beaten and maimed for life by the unscrupulous Belgians. All this abuse and crime was laid at the door of Leopold the King of the Belgians.

It is not for me to decide upon the guilt or innocence of the deceased king, but this is what I wish to emphasize: In spite of the fact that Leopold died conciliated to God and apparently sorrowing for his sins, the non-Catholic world condemned him, and not a few ministers condemned him to hell. This would seem to indicate that although we are sorry for our sins we are liable to punishment. And that exactly is the Catholic doctrine. We believe that a person who repents of his sins and uses the means to obtain forgiveness actually wipes out his crime and escapes hell, but that some temporal punishment is due to him either in this world or in purgatory. That Protestants unconsciously believe this is patent from the fact that they demanded punishment for Leopold even after he had striven to make his peace with God. Since they will hear nothing of a purgatory, they had no choice but to condemn him to hell.

Let us consider another case. A man lives for many years unmindful of the commandments of God. He lives as a creature of nature; gratifies every passion; neglects prayer and good works. Now, of a sudden, the danger of death appears. Some good person comes to him and teaches him the truths of God. He repents of his sins, uses the necessary means of grace, and is saved before the angel of death appears with the final summons. Do you believe that the many years of his sinfulness and utter disregard of the laws of God will go unpunished? Do you believe that he will, at once, obtain the same reward that others will receive who have labored hard and continuously to avoid sin? Common sense tells us that it is not fair. God’s mercy great and magnanimous will save him from hell, but our reason demands some atonement for the sins of the past.

That is the doctrine of purgatory. It is based upon common sense, and supported by the infallible word of God. In the Second Book of the Maccabees, chapter 12, verse 46, we read: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.” Now if the dead are in heaven, they do not need our prayers; if they are in hell, our petitions will not help them. Therefore, the Scriptures assume that there is another place of punishment from which the sufferers may be rescued by prayer.

How consoling is the thought that we are still united with our beloved dead in the Communion of Saints! But what a cold, un-Christian belief it is to suppose that there is no way of helping the dead, and that they are either damned or happy in heaven! It is safe to say that if the judgment passed upon Leopold by the world were to be applied to all others with crimes equally great, the arrivals at the gates of heaven would be “few and far between.” Who of us can say that he has never sinned? Is it possible that the deathbed penitent is as much entitled to immediate glory as the man or woman who has labored against many temptations to conscientiously fulfill the law of God? On the other hand, knowing God’s infinite mercy and goodness, who would presume to condemn the sinner who, like the thief on the cross, in his last hour pleads for forgiveness?

Since, then, it is most reasonable to believe in purgatory, a place of temporal punishment for those who have died in grace but had not fully atoned for their sins, it follows as a corollary that we can be of aid to the suffering souls in purgatory. We have the assurance of the Scriptures to this effect; but we also have the teaching of the Church of God as our warranty.

Long before Martin Luther thought of rebelling against the Church, Masses were said and prayers offered up for the souls of the departed. And when another century rolls by it will find the Catholic Church still clinging to the same practice.

Some mischievous persons allege that the Catholic Church adheres to the doctrine of purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead in order not to lose the stipends for Masses. How ridiculous! In the Catholic Church the priest does not depend upon his popularity for his income. His salary is fixed by the bishop, and whether he is popular or not his means of sustenance are the same. Might not the bishop determine upon a higher salary and thus obviate the dependence of the priest upon free-will offerings? And is it not the practice of priests everywhere to encourage their people to pray for the dead? You seldom hear a priest ask for Masses. As a matter of fact, the faithful of their own accord bring more Mass intentions to the priest than he can say. It is nothing uncommon for priests in small parishes annually to send away many Mass intentions to the priests in the missions who have no other support. And, in the writer’s own experience at least, the majority of Mass stipends are not for the dead, but for personal intentions. Try as you may to discredit the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, you cannot overcome the reasonableness and truthfulness of the scriptural injunction: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.”

We have seen the caskets of the dead covered with flowers and wreaths, tokens of love and gratitude. But how soon these flowers wither and the wreaths become discolored! Our cemetery adjoins the church, and daily my duties lead me past the resting place of the dead. Here is the grave of one recently buried. A bunch of discolored, ugly-looking remnants of flowers lies above it. There I see the rusted frame of what was once a beautiful floral design. Thus a week or a few months have made our tokens of love ugly. How much more enduring would be a bouquet of spiritual roses plucked from the ever-bearing bush of the holy Rosary! How much more expressive of love a wreath of forget-me-nots made up of our daily ejaculatory prayers for the souls of our loved ones!

Let us banish from our churches the pagan custom of great pomp and display at funerals. Instead let us lay upon the caskets of our dear departed a spiritual bouquet, a promise to keep fresh their memory by daily prayer. Thus we are intimately united with our deceased relatives and friends, and they in turn, for they are friends of God, will storm heaven with petitions for our welfare and ultimate salvation.