In order to perform this work of charity in an aware way it is necessary first of all to understand what the ‘Communion of Saints’ is. This is something, indeed, that all of us declare that we accept and believe in when in church every Sunday we repeat: ‘I believe in the Communion of Saints’. One is dealing first of all with a profound mystery which we understand in its fullness and richness only on the last day, when immersed in the life of God ‘we shall see him as he really is’ (cf. 1 Jn 3:2). As far as we are given to understand now on earth, drawing on the Word of God and of the Church, this communion indicates the intimate solidarity that exists between all believers, whether they are on earth or in heaven; it is invisible but not for this reason less true and effective. ‘Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others…We must therefore believe that there exists a communion of goods in the Church’…’As this Church is governed by one and the same Spirit, all the goods she has received necessarily become a common fund’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 947). In other words, all of us believe that what someone does during their life on earth that is good and borne with suffering contributes not only to their own sanctification but also works towards their spiritual growth and the salvation of the whole of that body that is the militant (on earth), purged (in purgatory) and triumphant (heaven) Church. We are not isolated individuals, ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one spirit’ (1Cor 12:13). Just as it is possible to transplant skin from one part of the body to another, and a blood transfusion can be carried out from one person to another, it is also possible in the mysterious organism of the Church to apply prayers to some and transfer merits and sacrifices to others. In virtue of this communion, we are valuable and necessary, able to have a negative or positive influence on the whole of the body, as a result of which ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet’, as St. Paul observed to the Christians of Corinth (1Cor 12:21). Indeed, those members of the body that seem the most frail are often the most necessary. The same Catechism, at n. 949ff, adds that amongst the members of the Church an invisible exchange, a reciprocity, a reversibility of goods from one to another is constantly produced: this is the life of charity that circulates like a spiritual blood that saves, fertilise and enriches. ‘In this solidarity with all men, living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all. Every sin harms this communion’… ‘if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together’ (1Cor 12:12-27).
After this introduction, we can now understand in a better way what the Church asks of us with the last Work of Spiritual Mercy: ‘praying to God for the living and the dead’. But what is prayer? ‘For me prayer is an impetus of the heart, a simple look directed towards heaven, a cry of gratitude and of love, in pain as in joy’, St. Teresa of the Child Jesus wrote in a simple and wonderful way. For the Catechism of the Catholic Church, at n. 2560-64, ‘Whether we realise it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with our own. God thirsts that wee my thirst with him…Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man’. These were feelings experienced with suffering by Augustine who, disappointed by the deceptive and momentary joys of the world, converted to God and exclaimed: ‘Lord you made our hearts for you and they are troubled until they rest in you!’ (Confessions). We, too, now aware of our radical poverty, should first of all explode like Mary into a song of worship and praise to the Lord for all of His gifts. The Book of Psalms offers us a limitless sample of how to relate to God; and in harmony with the climate of the heart to converse sweetly with Him in contemplation, in thanksgiving or in the request for forgiveness or in praying for help so that He is at our side during the pain of illness and death. The whole of the Bible reveals to us a God who loves man, who wants to converse with His children, ‘delighting in the sons of man’ (Is 62:5; Pr 8:31). Many people, however, do not think like that and turn to Him only to ask for something in times of need or misfortune. Would it not be much more beautiful to see a child jumping into the arms of his mother to offer her a kiss or a caress rather than remembering her only to ask for something! Many other people do not pray because they imagine that God is a distant God who lives in a remote world, only on some occasions looking down from heaven to see what is happening here below. In fact, He repeats with tenderness to each one of us: ‘Behold I have graven you on the palms of my hands’ (Is 49:16). This means that God keeps me close to Him like a little bird in the warmth of His hand. It is the hand of a Father who loves me, who does not only look after me but who also conceived and implemented for me an entire plan of salvation. Was it not ‘for we men and for our salvation’ that Jesus came down from heaven? Therefore, as St. Paul exclaimed, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ (cf. Rm 8:31-32). And St. Iranaeus of Lyons added: ‘At the beginning God formed Adam not because he needed man but to have someone on whom to bestow His benefits’ (Adv.Haer., bk.IV,13,4-14).
After making this long introduction in order to understand in a better way what prayer is, we will now reflect briefly on praying for the living. It is true that God already knows what we need, even before we ask Him for it (cf. Mt 6:8-32), but our speaking about someone to Him in prayer is equal to saying to Him with emphasis and tenderness: ‘remember’. In other words God wants to make us attentive to our neighbour, He asks us to be truly interested in each other, in compassion, in mutual help, in mutual love, in the image of the concern that He nurtures for everyone. We should not forget that the Lord will say to those who have helped someone, with prayer as well: ‘you did this to me’ (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Therefore, those who pray for another person open up to his or her needs and this is remembered before God. Jesus is a shining icon of this attitude, with his arms spread out on the cross, loaded down with our sufferings and or pain, praying to God for those who crucified him: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Lk 23:34). Even before that, Jesus had prayed for Peter, asking that his faith should not disappear (cf. Lk 22:32); for the apostles, asking for them to be given the gift of the Spirit (cf. Jn 14:16); and now he prays for us, ‘since he always lives to make intercession for them’ (cf. Heb 7:25). But already in the Old Testament we can remember the insistent, apparently brazen, prayer of Abraham (cf. Gen 18:17-33) who does not hesitate to place himself between the ire of God and the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorra. We seem to have before us bargaining about mercy. The patriarch asks for their salvation thanks to fifty wise men. He then gradually goes down to ten. This is not an absurd attempt to influence God but, rather, a bold and courageous effort to enter the orbit of His mercy. Moses also intercedes in an effective way for the people of Israel who betrayed God by worshipping the golden calf which ‘would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them’ (Ps 106:23). Thus we, as well, have a special role to perform in the Church towards the whole of humanity. Indeed, those who follow Jesus share in responsibility for the salvation of the world. Of great contemporary relevance, therefore, is the thinking of that great convert, François Mauriac: ‘When grace diminishes in you, it diminishes in many others who lean on you for support. However miserable you may be, you are of Christ; many warm themselves at this flame and will have their part of light. But if in you there are the shadows of sin, this will blind those whom you should illumine. And the day when you no longer burn with love, many brethren will die of cold’.
In addition, one should also pray for the dead, and I apologise if in relation to this last Work of Charity I dwell on the subject a little more. Let us ask ourselves immediately, in the light of the Word of God and of the Church, can the prayer we, the living, say, change something in the destiny of the dead? In the Old Testament there is only one text that dwells explicitly on living people who pray for the dead. For this reason, reading it in its entirety is useful: ‘He (Judas Maccabee) 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 honourably, 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 award that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a pious and holy thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin’ (2 Mac 12:43-45). At the time of Jesus, as well, the Sadducees refused to believe in the resurrection, that is to say that life continued after death. Jesus answered them: ‘And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong’ (Mk 12:26-27). The Christians of Thessalonica were also concerned about the fate of dead people who had believed in Jesus. St. Paul said to them: ‘But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep’ (1Th 4:13-14). The remembrance of our dead in the prayer of the Eucharist thus takes on a meaning: ‘Give them, O Lord, all those who rest in Christ, blessedness, light and peace’. We can also legitimately ask ourselves: where are the dead? What is their dwelling? We can find the answer in Holy Scripture: ‘But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace…Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love’ (Ws 3:1-3.9). Jesus Christ, ‘the first-born from the dead’ (Col 1:18), is the foundation of our hope in a life that is stronger than death. It was he who said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live’ (Jn 11:25-26). Prayers of the living for the dead thus constitute an implicit profession of faith that there is something ‘beyond’ for every man who leaves this world (cf. Jn 25-26). Whatever the case, one is not dealing with praying to influence the decisions of God about those who are dead, but, rather, of commending them to His mercy as a just judge and saviour. The dead, therefore, need our support, as we need theirs. Let us leave the rest to God. The final wish that comes from this – for you and for me – is always to have someone at our side, as Mauriac hopes; someone who burns with love, so as to be certain that we will not die of cold. Thus may the daily exercise of the fourteen Works of Mercy, which I have tried, very simply, to comment upon, make our faith credible and industrious, above all during this Holy Year of Grace; clothing us, therefore, in those nuptial clothes that are needed to be welcomed in heaven (cf. Mt 14:15-24).