A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Praying for the Departed


ROME, 20 MAY 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: The text of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) for vespers of Wednesday of Week 3 (that is, the English translation used in the United States) has the following intercession: "Be merciful to the faithful departed / — keep them from the power of the Evil One." Someone asked: What power does the Evil One have over the faithful departed? I didn't have a satisfying answer. I thought that it was a matter of a poor translation, but I looked up the text in Officium Divinum, Liturgia Horarum, Iuxta Ritum Romanum, and found the following text: "Misericordiam tuam fratribus nostris concede defunctis / — neque in potestatem maligni spiritus tradas eos." In view of the Church teaching on the particular judgment — and that the prayer seems to be talking about the departed, not the dying — I was at a loss to explain the meaning of this intercession. — D.S., Lincoln, Nebraska

A: These intercessions were composed quite quickly during the 1960s. Even though they are found in the liturgical books, their nature as intercessions means that they are a rather weak source from the doctrinal point of view. It is therefore quite possible that some infelicitious expressions might have slipped through the textual revisions.

Also, since the liturgical norms allow bishops' conferences wide leeway in composing new intercessions for the Liturgy of the Hours, not all translations will present the difficulty highlighted by our correspondent. Indeed, the version of the breviary used in most English-speaking countries contains a completely different text for the day in question.

That said, while the controversial text can lead to misinterpretations, I believe it is subject to a perfectly orthodox interpretation.

If we take the second part of the intercession as a distinct statement, we run up against a problem for, as our reader points out, the departed receive an immediate particular judgment, after which the Evil One has no power over those who enter either heaven or purgatory.

However, the two parts of the intercession must be seen as an integral whole. And, indeed, one of the forms of proclaiming this intercession is for the priest to say the entire prayer with the people giving a common response as is done in the prayers of the faithful at Mass.

In this case, the expression "Keep them from the power of the Evil One" is intimately tied to the petition "Be merciful" addressed to God.

Thus we ask that God's mercy be expressed in not allowing those who have died to fall into the power of the Evil One. As such, the prayer most likely refers to the moment of judgment itself as the venue where this mercy and this prevention of Satan's dominion is exercised.

In this way the petition is not essentially different from many other of the Church's prayers for the departed in which God's mercy is invoked for the souls of the deceased. That the particular judgment is immediately after death has never impeded the Church recommending prayer for the dead.

God is not limited to our categories of time and space, and even when we pray for those who have passed away long after they have gone, or even pray generically for the dead, we know that God will use the prayer to greatest advantage.

* * *

Follow-up: Praying for the Departed [6/3/2008]

Related to the question on prayers for the departed (see May 20), a reader from India asked: “How many intentions can be offered by a single priest celebrating mass? On Sundays our parish priest mentions more than 15 to 20 intentions for a single Mass that he celebrates. Is this valid and OK?”

We tried to address the complex question of Mass stipends and intentions on Feb. 2, 2005, and March 8, 2005.

On the latter date we wrote about the situation described by our reader: “[I]n some poor countries […] many people ask the priest to remember them at Mass and often offer a tiny sum as a symbolic contribution. Such offerings are not considered stipends as the faithful are accustomed to Mass being offered for many intentions besides their own.”

This remains the case. The principle involved is that since the Mass, insofar as it is Christ’s very sacrifice, is of infinite value, there is no limitation to the number of intentions that may be offered at any Mass.

The Church, however, normally allows for the priest to receive only one stipend for each Mass. However, as mentioned above, in poor countries where there are many requests for Mass and no true stipend as such, it is often allowable to offer Mass for several intentions.
 

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