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Souls Food

Today is the Feast of All Souls, when Christians traditionally pray for the dead, that they may have eternal rest.

The early Church testifies to belief in purgatory, in both its literary and archeological remains. Many Christians commissioned gravestones with epitaphs begging prayers for their souls. The apocrypha sketch out the doctrine, and the Fathers expound it. The existence of purgatory is implicit in both the Old Testament and the New (including the Gospels). The early Church kept many graveside traditions that, in effect, made a habit of prayer for the dead. It was customary to mark the anniversary of a dead person’s passing (three days, one week, one year) with the celebration of the Mass. In the fourth century, St. Monica urged her priest-son Augustine to remember her soul in prayer when he said Mass. And, like a good boy, he did. “If we had no care for the dead,” Augustine said, “we would not be in the habit of praying for them.” Augustine held that there are “temporary punishments after death.” There is remedial pain as the soul undergoes its purification and preparation for heaven. St. Gregory the Great emphasized that this doctrine was not optional.

The earliest records in the paper trail are not to be missed, for they’re the most poetic. And you’ll find a sampling online here.

The best book on the subject is, without a doubt, Purgatory, by Michael Taylor, S.J. It presents the scriptural, patristic, and theological evidence in an accessible readable form. It’s a friendly treatment, good for handing to a skeptical friend.

“He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:43-45). “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46, Vulgate).

5 thoughts on “Souls Food

  1. I know Jewish people also remember and pray for their dead after fixed periods (the yahrzeit after a year, for sure).

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  3. Speaking of departed souls, Mike, can you recommend an accessible work that gives information about the 33 Doctors of the Church, along with one or more key writings from each doc?

    I’m guessing it would have to be a multiple-large-volume set. As I try to get my arms around the Patristics, I’m feeling increasingly overwhelmed and need to focus somehow.

    If I can’t find a volume that distills down to a crucial work or two by each doctor, I’m going to have to make a list of each, and then somehow select a work from each. At least that way I’ll be satisfied in knowing a few years from now that I’ll have read something from each of the 33. Maybe it’s a vain project when viewed this way… ?

    Can you offer a Patristics novice some advice on this?

    I’d be wide open to your ideas on a writing for each of the 33 doctors, if you were interested in taking me up on that. But such an endeavor would take up a lot of time, I realize.

    (ps. I’m getting your revised The Fathers of the Church book for Christmas, too!)

  4. […] Soul Food (The History of Purgatory) – The Way of the Fathers   […]

  5. Mark,
    Thanks for buying my book. You’re feeding my children!
    As for the doctors: I’m partial to The 33 Doctors of the Church, by Capuchin Father Christopher Rengers. It’s lively and accessible, but the biographies still run deep. Father Christopher is a master. He provides ample quotes from the Doctors, but I don’t recall that he included any long selections from their writings. Amazon lists three other introductory works, but I don’t know them: Doctors Of The Church: Thirty-Three Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity, The Doctors of the Church: Doctors of the First Millennium, and A Walk Through History with the Doctors of the Church. They all sound wonderful. But I can only vouch for Rengers.

    You also might be interested in this website.

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