By Fr. Christopher Johnson, O.P.
We began the month of November with the celebration of All Saints on November 1, followed by All Souls on November 2. The celebration of All Saints is a joy-filled experience in which we, as Catholics, jubilantly recall the accomplishments, legends, miracles, and holiness of those who went before us. The Church even agrees with this, assigning white as the liturgical color.
All Souls’ Day is based upon the tradition of recalling the memory of the deceased, and praying for their eternal rest. The act of remembering the dead and praying for them is not a distinctly Christian, or Catholic practice, as most cultures throughout human history have sought to honor their dead in some fashion.
What is distinctly Christian is how we honor the dead and how we pray for them. Since the era of the early Church, people have regularly prayed for their deceased loved ones, and have had the Eucharist celebrated for them. In the first centuries of Christianity, these Masses took place on or near the tombs of their loved ones. Inscriptions found on tombs in the Roman catacombs from the second century provide evidence for this tradition. These inscriptions include prayers for the dead, as well as notes celebrating anniversaries of the death of those buried in the tombs. These prayers for the dead were intended to request the speedy passage of loved ones through their time of being purified of their sins and earthly attachments, and on to the Heavenly Kingdom of God.
The tradition of praying for the dead existed in the Jewish tradition as well. In the Book of Maccabees, we see that tradition of offering sacrifices for the deceased in the story of Judas Maccabee taking up a collection for those who died on the battlefield, so that their souls would be spared of punishment for their wrongdoings.
The Jewish practice of having animal sacrifices offered for the dead transitioned into having the sacrifice of the Mass offered for the dead in Christianity. At Mass, both the prayers of the presider, and of those attending the Mass, along with the graces obtained through the Mass could be offered for the needs of another, such as the deceased. Prayers for the needs of the deceased and others also occur in the Eucharistic prayers. The next time you are at Mass, listen to what the priest is saying. You will hear him pray for the Church as a whole, the leaders in the Church and all those who have died.
The call to pray for the dead at Mass can be found in the writings of the Church Fathers. St. Augustine, who lived during the 5th century, recorded in his Confessions, the dying wish of his mother, St. Monica, that he would pray for her at the altar during Mass. The 7th century pope, St. Gregory, who is credited with the tradition of offering a series of Masses for the deceased, offered the exhortation, “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
In the early Church, when Mass was celebrated, those requesting the Mass offered a “sacrifice” of the supplies necessary for Mass — bread, wine, linens, candles, and so on. They also traditionally offered extra foods or goods to support the priest, just as was done at the Jewish Temple. At that time, the collection taken up at Mass was used to support the poor and sick of the Christian community, rather than for the operation of the institution. Therefore, those serving the Church depended on the generosity of others. One way this was done was by giving gifts in exchange for the celebration of Mass on behalf of a family, or group. This tradition was also born of, “the old Roman notion of gift-giving which does not entail reciprocity. Gifts freely given are freely received without the obligation of recompense.” Priests were called in their generosity to pray and offer Mass for the wishes of their congregants. Likewise, donors provided support not out of obligation, but rather out of gratitude.
This tradition of asking for Masses to be offered for various needs continues on to today; the vast majority of Masses celebrated throughout the world are offered for an intention of someone. These intentions could be for one’s relatives or friends, be they living or dead, or as a gesture of gratitude towards God, or to seek God’s guidance for themselves, or someone else. Today people no longer supply the materials for Mass, but are encouraged to continue to offer a gift of gratitude to support the priest celebrating the Mass. Currently in many developing nations, this is the only form of support priests receive.
At Fenwick, Mass is made available daily for students, staff and faculty: Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday before school at 7:30 a.m., and on Wednesday after school at 3:20 p.m. The Dominican friars of Fenwick regularly offer these Masses for those alumni of whose passing we are made aware. Please know that the friars are willing and eager to offer Mass for the needs of those in the greater Fenwick community as well.
To have prayers or a Mass offered for an intention of yours, please tap or click on the red “Submit Prayer Intentions” button. No donation is required for a Mass to be offered, but offerings out of gratitude are always welcome.
For more information, please see:
Kilmartin, Edward J. The Eucharist in the West: History and Theology, ed. Robert J. Daly (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998).
Saunders, William, “Mass Intentions.” Arlington Catholic Herald, November 6, 2013. https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/mass-intentions.html
Spahn, Stephen F. Mass intentions: Memorials, money and the meaning of the Eucharist. (Boston College University Press, 2011).