Faith Matters

To infinity and beyond... the power of praying for the dead

In the Catholic tradition, November is a time for remembering and praying for the 'faithful departed', those loved ones who have gone before us and whose loss we feel. In this reflection, Brian Wilson considers the practise of praying for the dead

Relatives gather around some of the graves illuminated by candles during All Saints Day (November 1) at the cemetery in Vilnius, Lithuania. Picture by AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis

JESUS is our ultimate connection between earth and heaven, creatures and Creator, time and eternity. Images help us to understand this connection.

The famous saying of the fictional character Buzz Lightyear - "To infinity and beyond!" - speaks of a human adventure that is without end.

Buzz is named after Apollo 11 astronaut and ordained Presbyterian elder Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin, who was the second person to walk on the moon. Buzz Lightyear's desire to 'journey beyond' draws me to reappraise the Christian spiritual journey.

When I express my belief that God the Father Almighty is eternal - without beginning, without end, existing beyond time - it then becomes a privilege to explore how I can come closer to Jesus, who enables all of us to enter into "infinity and beyond".

Let's begin at the Book of Exodus, with the prayerful meeting between God and Moses. God said, "I am He who is. This is what you are to say to the Israelites, 'I am has sent you to me.'"

God makes it clear to Moses that the true God is not one being among many. He is being. He is the ground of all existence and is beyond the limits of space and time. In the eternal realm, there is no past or future, everything occurs to God at once in a simultaneous present. Our task is to understand things better, from God's eternal perspective.

The story of divine revelation reached its climax through the coming of Jesus who declared, "I and the Father are one." In John's Gospel, Jesus made the claim to have seen Abraham, who had died hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

From a human perspective, Jesus' statement is incredible, and the Jewish people reply, "You are not yet 50 years old, and have you seen Abraham?" But Jesus responded, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am," reinforcing the claim of His eternal nature and union with God.

He insists it is through God's love for humanity that he has come into the world and in turn shared his divine love for us by giving us the Holy Spirit, telling us, "It will be with you always. It remains in you and will be with you."

Through Baptism, each Christian receives the Holy Spirit, "puts on Christ" and becomes a "partaker of the divine nature", gaining unique access to God, which can be renewed through prayer and the sacraments.

The Catechism highlights the deep impact of prayer by quoting St John Chrysostom: "Nothing is equal to prayer; for what is impossible, it makes possible, what is difficult, easy." We can pray any time for anyone in any place.

Recognising the immensity of God and his living presence amongst us washes away any sense of self-righteousness we may have and draws us into a deeper dependence on divine grace.

In his apostolic letter Gaudete et exsultate, (Rejoice and be glad), Pope Francis reminded us of the Church's teaching, "that the gift of grace surpasses the power of human intellect and will and that with regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man.

"Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality. His friendship infinitely transcends us; we cannot buy it with our works, it can only be a gift born of his loving initiative.

"This invites us to live in joyful gratitude for this completely unmerited gift, since after one has grace, the grace already possessed cannot come under merit."

The Holy Father quoted St Thérèse of Lisieux: "In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you empty-handed, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justices have stains in your sight".

Being aware of God's grandeur and loving involvement in our lives helps us to live each day in deeper prayerful trust and freedom.

Two years ago the graveyard in my local parish was damaged and the outcry led me to think more about the Church's strong focus on praying for the dead.

In the process, I learned that not all Christian denominations pray for the dead, many simply remember them. So I thought, "If a person has died long ago, how can my prayers make any difference?" This question is answered by recalling that God exists in eternity, which is outside of space and time.

Therefore, whether we pray for someone during their life, on the day of their funeral, or many years later, all prayers reach God simultaneously. Knowing that prayer is an entry into an eternal, timeless dimension gives us great confidence in the limitless love of God.

It reminds us that our prayers can have a positive impact on our departed loved ones and are one of the most charitable things we can do.

When I hear the words of the Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear, I am led to a deeper sense of wonder, which Pope Francis calls, "The essential religious state of mind." It leads me to Jesus, who Pope Francis describes as our "ultimate source of wonder as Christians."

It gives me a deeper appreciation of eternity and the world around me, leading me to say, with the psalmist:

"When I see the heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and stars that you set in place-

What is man that you are mindful of him,

and a son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him little less than a god,

crowned him with glory and honour."

May we become more aware of the presence of God in our lives and have the grace and courage to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the Son of God, our Eternal King.

:: Brian Wilson grew up in Ballymena, Co Antrim. He is a seminarian for the Diocese of Down and Connor at the Venerable English College in Rome.

Faith Matters