A couple of weeks ago, I penned a reflection on the importance of friendship in both its human and Christian dimensions. As I pointed out, friendship is not something that is ephemeral; indeed, it perdures unto eternity. Isn’t that what we mean by the “communion of saints” that we acknowledge in the Profession of Faith every Sunday? And that got me thinking about two aspects of friendship that seem to have fallen on hard times.
When I was in third grade, I noticed that Sister Mary Vera had a large black binder which she kept open on her desk, turning a page each day. Being a “nun’s boy” (as my mother dubbed me) and an inquisitive kid, I nudged up to her one day, peered over her shoulder and saw that the page had about 30 or 40 names on it. “Who are those people, Sister?” I asked. “Oh, Peter, you’ll be in that book at the end of the year. Those are the names of every child I have ever taught and every day, I turn a page and pray in particular for the children listed there. I pray that they are living happy and holy lives and that I will meet them in Heaven!” How incredibly loving and beautiful. Sister Vera knew the meaning of real friendship: praying for her former students to be “living happy and holy lives,” so that she would “meet them in Heaven.”
I am afraid that most of our prayers, whether for ourselves or for others, are for very mundane, pedestrian things like passing a test or winning the lottery. There is nothing wrong with praying for such things, but Our Lord admonished us: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” that is, our focus needs to be on the ultimate realities. He went on to assure us that our Heavenly Father knows that we need to pass a test or even, perhaps, win the lottery – and that He will give us precisely what we need for life here below, if our priorities are in order: “and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33). Thus, true friendship includes prayer for the salvation of those we count as friends.
This failure to pray for our friends in ways that truly matter takes on epic proportions when we consider friends (and relatives) who have died. Praying for the dead goes back to ancient Judaism, as found in the liturgies of the Temple and synagogue – which means that Jesus and His disciples also prayed for the dead since they frequented those holy places with fidelity. A distinctive hallmark of Catholic spirituality has always been “getting a Mass card” for a deceased friend or relative. I was a weekend assistant in a parish in the 1980s where this practice was so ingrained in the faithful that the pastor had more Mass intentions than he and his assistant could handle and so supplied all four of us weekend priests with intentions as well. I am told that that parish now has hardly enough Mass intentions for the two full-time priests. How has this happened?
Well, for starters, it has been “in the air” for at least forty or fifty years that everyone goes to Heaven (except maybe not Hitler). A doctrine like Purgatory which, in another era, was perceived as a consoling and merciful teaching is now considered to be either totally out of date or vindictive. The upshot of that mentality has invaded the Sacred Liturgy, first of all, with the white vestments and “alleluias” for the Mass of Christian Burial. Ironically, though, nearly the only person in white at a funeral today is the priest! Sensible and sensitive people still dress in subdued colors. The coup de grace, however, is the funeral homily (let’s not even get into the even more troubled waters of eulogies). Who has not heard a priest exhort a congregation: “Don’t pray for Joe; pray to him!”? With the result that the dead are deprived of the suffrages of their loved ones – a failure in justice, charity and true friendship.
We are early enough in the new year to tack on one more resolution, namely, a commitment to follow the noble example of Sister Vera in praying for our friends to lead “a happy and holy life” now and to follow the very wise request of St. Monica who, on her deathbed, asked to be “remembered at the altar of the Lord.” Friends do things like that for each other.
One of the many prayers for the dead given us in the Sacred Liturgy would be worth keeping in our minds, in our hearts, and on our lips:
O God, giver of pardon and loving author of our salvation, grant, we pray you, in your mercy, that, through the intercession of Blessed Mary, ever-Virgin, and all your Saints, the members, friends, and benefactors of our community, who have passed from this world, may attain a share in eternal happiness.
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