The best that a Catholic can wish for a loved one who has died is that the person’s soul will go to heaven. Heaven is the place of eternal rest – or repose – that is the final reward of faithful followers of Jesus. This is what “repose of the soul” means in a Catholic context: that the soul has gone to heaven to be with God for all eternity. Catholics pray that their deceased loved ones will experience such repose.
Death of a Catholic
Every Catholic wishes to wipe the slate clean before death – to ensure that all their sins have been forgiven. Indeed, that is why a person approaching death will often ask a priest to administer the sacrament of reconciliation, formerly known as confession or penance. Fortunately, most souls are not condemned to hell – only a small proportion (presumably) of the deceased go to hell, a place of eternal punishment reserved for those who die in a state of mortal sin. However, very few achieve the lofty goal of dying in a state of perfection. Those who fall short of this state are not permitted to go directly to heaven; they are sent to a place called purgatory.
Catholics believe that purgatory is the destination of those who do not go to hell and do not go directly to heaven. It is a temporary state – like a halfway house for souls – where those with unresolved venial sins are sent to undergo purification. After they have been purified, they are fit to go to heaven and enter the presence of God. While there is no clear indication how long souls remain in purgatory, it is believed that most souls residing there will eventually be taken to heaven.
Praying for the Dead
When Catholics pray for the “repose of the soul” of a deceased person, they are expressing a desire that the soul in purgatory will soon be purified and taken to heaven. This is a very common Catholic prayer. It is said often – at regular Sunday Masses, at the vigil (wake) of a deceased person and also at the funeral Mass. In addition, Catholics often voice this intention in private and group prayer sessions outside of Mass.
The Living and the Dead
Catholics pray for the “repose of the soul” of a loved one not only because of their concern for the deceased person. They do this also because of the Catholic doctrine that the living and the dead are all members of the same Church – that there is an unbreakable bond between those still on earth and those who have died. Since the souls in purgatory have not yet attained their ultimate goal – and because they cannot pray for themselves – the living demonstrate a sense of unity by praying for them.
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