Prayer for the Departed


Prayer for the departed is an accepted practice with all Anglo-Catholics. It is thought to have support in particular expressions, and still more in the general tone, of Holy Scripture. It has been the ordinary usage of the Christian Church in public worship and in private devotion as far back as there is evidence. It is demanded by considerations of reason. If there is survival after death, reason suggests that the life before and after death is continuous, and that such help as may be afforded to those still on earth through intercessory prayer cannot be denied to the departed.

The Great War of 1914 shook popular prejudices, and drove English people to prayers for those whom they mourned. So far as the events of the time have promoted earnest prayer, the results have been altogether good; but a not unnatural effect of the distress and sorrow caused to human love has in some cases tended to impair the solemnity of the decisions made in the present life. For the present life is the only revealed time of probation. God in His unerring wisdom and unfailing love takes into account all the circumstances and all the opportunities or lack of opportunities of each soul. He knows and understands all that has been seen or unseen in each life. His judgement, exercised at the moment of death, is not subject to the imperfections or misconceptions of our human judgements. But, so far as there is revelation, and so far as the belief of the Church has discerned, the probation of each life is ended at death. The Catholic prayers for the departed are not prayers for a new probation, or for the reversal of what has been in life on earth, but for the gifts of God to the souls in whom, whatever their failures and imperfections and sins, He has found something which He can accept.

Anglo-Catholic theology, then, regards the moment of death as the time of the particular judgement, that is, the judgement of God on the individual soul. After death is the waiting state. About it we know little. Our understanding of its nature and its conditions is necessarily limited. Of it experience can tell us nothing. We can form no idea what the life of a bodiless soul is like. We believe that the departed are living; for our Lord has told us so. We believe that they can be helped by our prayers; for otherwise the whole historic witness of Christian worship would mislead us. We can understand that, as in this life, progress may require some kind of pain; that a clearer discernment of what the events of this life have meant may deepen sorrow for past sin; and that the preparation for the Beatific Vision of the All-Holy God may need a discipline no less real because it is wholly spiritual. Such discipline may be called penal, since all suffering borne by a soul which once has sinned is part of the punishment for sin. It may be said to be purifying, since all chastening rightly endured has cleansing power. If any have gone further, and have used images of material things, such language can be justified only as the metaphorical speech which may suggest realities which it fails to describe.

The waiting state is the prelude to the new life of body and soul united by the resurrection. What the details of the resurrection will be like we cannot tell. Here, again, our ignorance is great. But the Church is committed to the truth that the future life will have the fullness which body adds to soul, and that the essential quality which makes one body the possession of one soul through all material changes from childhood to old age will be for ever preserved. The Catholic of today will not get much further than the description by St Paul that the future body will be uncorrupt and glorious, powerful and spiritual; he may free himself from the embarrassments which have hampered truth in too many carnal conceptions of the resurrection which have been too prevalent; he may regret that the earnest endeavour of some Greek theologians to preserve the teaching of St Paul long had an influence less wide than the attempts to model the heavenly life on an earthly pattern; but he knows that he cannot abandon the doctrine of the resurrection without falsifying the New Testament as well as parting company with the creeds of the Church.


Darwell Stone (1859-1941)

The Faith of an English Catholic, 1926