The offering of Masses for the repose of the soul of the faithful departed is linked with our belief in Purgatory. We believe that if a person has died fundamentally believing in God but with venial sins and the hurt caused by sin, then God in His divine love and mercy will first purify the soul. After this purification has been completed, the soul will have the holiness and purity needed to share in the beatific vision in heaven.
While each individual stands in judgment before the Lord upon death and must render an account of his life, the communion of the Church shared on this earth continues, except for those souls damned to hell. The Vatican Council II affirmed, “This sacred council accepts loyally the venerable faith of our ancestors in the living communion which exists between us and our brothers who are in the glory of heaven or who are yet being purified after their death…” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #51). Therefore, just as we now pray for each other, share each other’s burdens, and help each other on the path of salvation, the faithful on earth can offer prayers and sacrifices to help the departed souls undergoing purification, and no better prayer could be offered than that of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
In 1902, Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Mirae caritatis beautifully elaborated this point and emphasized the connection between the communion of saints with the Mass: “The grace of mutual love among the living, strengthened and increased by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, flows, especially by virtue of the Sacrifice [of the Mass], to all who belong to the communion of saints. For the communion of saints is simply… the mutual sharing of help, atonement, prayers, and benefits among the faithful, those already in the heavenly fatherland, those consigned to the purifying fire, and those still making their pilgrim way here on earth. These all form one city, whose head is Christ, and whose vital principle is love. Faith teaches that although the august Sacrifice can be offered to God alone, it can nevertheless be celebrated in honor of the saints now reigning in heaven with God, who has crowned them, to obtain their intercession for us, and also, according to apostolic tradition, to wash away the stains of those brethren who died in the Lord but without yet being wholly purified.” Think of this point: The Holy Mass transcends time and space, uniting the faithful in heaven, on earth, and in purgatory into a Holy Communion, and the Holy Eucharist Itself augments our union with Christ, wipes away venial sins, and preserves us from future mortal sins (cf. Catechism, #1391-1396). Therefore, the offering of the Mass and other prayers or sacrifices for the intentions of the faithful departed are good and holy acts.
This practice is not new. The Catechism asserts, “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic Sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (#1032). Actually, this “beginning” has roots even in the Old Testament. Judas Maccabees offered prayers and sacrifices for the Jewish soldiers who had died wearing pagan amulets, which were forbidden by the Law; II Maccabees reads, “Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out” (12:43) and “Thus, [Judas Maccabees] made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from sin” (12:46).
In the early history of the Church, we also see evidence of prayers for the dead. Inscriptions uncovered on tombs in the Roman catacombs of the second century evidence this practice. For example, the epitaph on the tomb of Abercius (d. 180) Bishop of Hieropolis in Phrygia begs for prayers for the repose of his soul. Tertullian in 211 attested to observing the anniversary of death with prayers. Moreover, the Canons of Hippolytus (c. 235) explicitly mention the offering of prayers for the dead during the Mass.
The testimony of the Church Fathers beautifully supports this belief: St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), in one of his many catechetical discourses, explained how at Mass both the living and dead are remembered, and how the Eucharistic Sacrifice of our Lord is of benefit to sinners, living and dead. St. Ambrose (d. 397) preached, “We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord.” St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) stated, “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.” Finally, Pope St. Gregory (d. 604) said, “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
One may wonder, “What if the person’s soul has already been purified and gone to heaven?” We on earth know neither the judgment of God nor the divine time frame; so, there is always goodness in remembering our departed and commending them to God through prayer and sacrifice. However, if indeed the departed soul has been purified and now rests in God’s presence in heaven, then those prayers and sacrifices offered benefit the other souls in purgatory through the love and mercy of God.
Therefore, we find not only the origins of this practice dating to the early Church but we also clearly recognize its importance. When we face the death of someone, even a person who is not Catholic, to have a Mass offered for the repose of his soul and to offer our prayers are more beneficial and comforting than any other sympathy card or bouquet of flowers. Most importantly, we should always remember our own dearly departed loved ones in the Holy Mass and through our own prayers and sacrifices help them in their gaining eternal rest.