Death is a mystery to us, the great unknown.
Yet Christian language has a very positive, hope-filled language towards the mystery of death, as we pray in the Collect today at Mass:
“Listen kindly to our prayers, O Lord, and, as our faith in your Son, raised from the dead, is deepened, so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants also find new strength.”
Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI, in Spe Salvi, while reflecting on Jesus the Good Shepherd, writes beautifully about the passing from this life to the next:
“The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: He himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through” (“Spe Salvi,” #6).
So the positive, hope-filled language with which the Church speaks of death is rooted in its faith in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who accompanies us at the moment of our passing and lifts our gaze to a future rising of our bodies.
Nonetheless, our hope-filled vision is tempered by the reality that sin is present in all of our lives. The second book of Maccabees is the first account we have of people praying for the dead because of their sin. It tells how the Jewish leader, Judas Maccabee, led his troops into battle. Afterwards, as the soldiers prepared their slain comrades for burial, they discovered that each was wearing an amulet taken as booty from a pagan temple. This was a direct violation of the Law, and so Judas and his soldiers prayed that God would forgive the sins these men had committed. (II Maccabees 12:39-45)
This prayer is echoed in the New Testament when Saint Paul offers a prayer for a man named Onesiphorus who had died, “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day” (II Timothy 1:18). By the fourth century prayers for the dead are mentioned throughout Christian literature, a clear indication of the importance the Church gives to praying for the dead.
Praying for the dead is linked to our belief in the communion of Saints. We form one Church with those who have gone before us; we believe that we can assist those who have passed with our prayers, as they can assist us by theirs.
“On this day is observed the commemoration of the faithful departed, in which our common and pious Mother the Church, immediately after having endeavored to celebrate by worthy praise all her children who already rejoice in heaven, strives to aid by her powerful intercession with Christ, her Lord and Spouse, all those who still groan in purgatory, so that they may join as soon as possible the inhabitants of the heavenly city.” —Roman Martyrology
Every priest is permitted to say three Masses on this day and it is a recommended practice for the laity to attend one as well.
If possible it is also a great act of charity to drop by and visit a cemetery to pray for the souls of the departed there. Recently I had stopped to pray at one and found several Smiths to pray for (not all that hard to do) thinking to myself that it would be nice if in a hundred years someone stopped and did the same for me.