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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Purgatory and Praying for the Dead

Why Pray for the Dead?

Q: A Christian friend of mine says that the Bible contains no references to purgatory. What is the basis for the Catholic Church’s teaching about this? Why do Catholics pray for the dead?

A: In 2 Maccabees 12:38-46, Judas Maccabee orders that sacrifices be offered in the Temple in Jerusalem for slain Jewish soldiers who had worn pagan amulets (good-luck charms).

Some people have seen this story as biblical justification for the teaching on purgatory. That certainly overstates the author’s intention. If, however, those Jewish soldiers did something wrong by wearing pagan amulets, why offer sacrifices on their behalf?

The two Books of Maccabees are probably not in your friend’s Bible because they were originally written in Greek. During Jesus’ lifetime, some Jewish people regarded these books as inspired by God.

About 60 years after Jesus’ death, however, rabbis at Jamnia in Palestine drew up the list (canon) of the Scriptures used by Jewish people to this day. That shorter list includes only works composed in Hebrew, excluding the two Books of Maccabees, five other books and parts of the Books of Daniel and Esther.

For centuries, Eastern and Western Christians accepted as inspired the longer list. When Martin Luther translated the Bible, he used the shorter list. Sometimes, these seven books are printed in Protestant Bibles as “Deutero-canonical” or “Apocrypha.”

The New Testament and early Christian writings offer some evidence for purgatory. In 2 Timothy 1:18, St. Paul prays for Onesiphorus, who has died. The earliest mention of prayers for the dead in public Christian worship is by the writer Tertullian in 211 A.D.

The question of purgatory and praying for the dead was a major issue between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century. The Council of Trent’s 1563 decree about purgatory reaffirmed its existence and the usefulness of prayers for the deceased, yet it cautioned against “a certain kind of curiosity or superstition...” about it.

The Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory reflects its understanding of the communion of saints. We are connected to the saints in heaven, the saints-in-waiting in purgatory and other believers here on earth. Prayers for the deceased are not a means of buying their way out of purgatory.

The Catholic Church’s teaching about purgatory (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1030-32) says that all sin, unfortunately, has a life of its own and may have bad effects even after the sinner repents. Sincere repentance includes a desire to repair the damage done by one’s sins. That may or may not be complete before the person dies.

When the world ends at the Final Judgment, there will be only two possibilities: heaven and hell. We who celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection over sin and death look forward to sharing in that victory, and we pray that our beloved dead may do the same.

Did I Make Him Gay?

Q: Can a mother cause a son to become gay? My middle-aged son has a lot of gay friends. I am afraid to ask him if he is gay. My other sons definitely are not.

A: I think the best science today answers your question with a resounding “no.” If your son is indeed homosexually oriented, that is not anyone’s decision—not even his. Most experts in this field deny that any therapy can change a person’s true sexual orientation.

The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family has written Always Our Children: A Pastoral Message to Parents of Homosexual Children and Suggestions for Pastoral Ministers (Publication 5-131 in English and 5-130 in Spanish). Your local parish may have a copy. It is available from the U.S. Catholic Conference for $1.25, plus 10 percent shipping and handling ($3 minimum). Call toll-free 800-235-8722 or visit www.nccbuscc.org.

Our Catholic Update titled “What the Church Teaches About Homosexuality,” by Richard Sparks, C.S.P., (C0799) can also be ordered either online or by calling 1-800-488-0488.

What Did God Mean?

Q: As an eighth-grade CCD catechist, I will be using the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) for a prayer service on faith.

Over the years, I have struggled with the implications of this story and have found commentaries useful for adults. How can I present this to 13-year-olds? I fear that they will think that God delights in testing and tricking the people most loyal to him.

If this is the kind of faith God demands, they may well ask, “Who needs it?”

A: Yes, this story is difficult to understand and to present. Yet it also plays an important part in forming Judeo-Christian ethics.

Why are we so repulsed by child sacrifice? In part, because this story tells us that the God of Abraham is not a God who wants that. Some of the gods worshiped by Abraham’s neighbors demanded child sacrifice!

The biblical God cannot do anything which contradicts what being God means. The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac tells us that demanding child sacrifice would contradict what being God means. We abhor child sacrifice partially because this difficult story is in the Bible.

If your 13-year-old students react negatively to this story, you can initiate a discussion about today’s more hidden child sacrifice (for example, partial-birth abortion, child prostitution, exploitation of children for work or military purposes, etc.).

The fact that all these are done in the name of someone’s freedom (not the child’s!) does not legitimate any of them. Good luck in your challenging but absolutely essential ministry!

How Are Sunday Gospels Selected?

Q: Who decides the readings used at Sunday Mass? Do they differ from country to country? Sometimes the reading begins a story, skips several verses and then continues the story. This puzzles me. What am I missing?

A: Our three-year cycle of Sunday readings uses Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B and Luke in Year C. The First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2000, begins Year C. The Gospel of John is used each year during the Easter season and during Year B since the Gospel of Mark is shorter than the others.

The Gospel readings are chosen first; Sunday’s first reading is coordinated with it. The second reading is continuous from the previous Sunday, almost always on a different theme.

Weekday Masses have a single cycle of Gospel readings. All four Gospels are used at weekday Masses each year.

The first reading on weekdays is either Year I (odd-numbered years) or Year II (even-numbered years). Weekday readings for Advent and Lent are the same each year.

Although the Lectionary (book of readings) is the same for Roman Catholics worldwide, small differences from country to country exist. For example, Italian Catholics celebrate Epiphany on January 6 while U.S. Catholics celebrate this feast on the first Sunday after January 1.

Some Protestant Churches use the same Lectionary as Roman Catholics use, though translations may vary.

A reading can omit a few verses. This usually provides greater clarity but can raise problems about context.

Initials Explained

Q: I have noticed that some Franciscan priests have T.O.R. after their family name. What does that mean?

A: It means Third Order Regular. St. Francis of Assisi founded the Order of Friars Minor, helped St. Clare establish the Poor Clares (Second Order) and then set up the Third Order, open to men and women, married or single.

Eventually, the Third Order became two different groups: Secular Franciscan Order (men and women as described above) and the Third Order Regular movement (men’s or women’s religious communities, professing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience).

Those who use T.O.R. are priests and brothers. They have U.S. provinces based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Winter Park, Florida.

In Francis’ day, all women religious were cloistered; they focused on prayer. They did not teach in schools, run hospitals or engage in the active works we associate with women religious today.

The Third Order Regular movement represented a new form of religious life, allowing women especially to engage in these “active” apostolates. There are approximately 12,000 Franciscan sisters within 83 U.S. congregations.

These sisters often use O.S.F. (Order of St. Francis) to avoid confusion with the international men’s group.



If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.


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