candyIt’s really hard to believe that she’s gone. My mother-in-law, in her fifties and full of energy—she had far more than I ever will—died suddenly last Christmas.

A special-needs preschool teacher, daily communicant, regular adorer, enthusiastic wife, mom, and grandmother, she lived life to the full and had made it a point to help as many as she could. Her love for Jesus and the sacraments, her family, and the occasional caramel kept her going.

If I were her, I’d be pretty pleased with myself. However, this exemplary woman had no misconceptions about what would happen to her after death. I remember her, just a year or two ago, standing in her kitchen, pointing her finger at us. “When I die,” she said, “you’d better be passing out my funeral cards to people on the street.” She’d wanted the whole city to pray for her—and they did; her funeral Mass was over-flowing with people—because she knew what was to come: particular judgment.

Our Catholic faith teaches us that after death, each one of us will have to give an account of his life to God. Paragraph 1022 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately,--or immediate and ever-lasting damnation.”

Those perfect souls who ascend immediately to heaven after death and who are enveloped in the Beatific Vision, of course, need no prayers. And those who rejected Our Lord’s love for them on this earth, casting themselves out of His presence upon death simply cannot be helped in hell, Lord have mercy on us. Our loved ones in Purgatory, however, those who died in a state of sanctifying grace but who are still in need of purification before entering the perfection of heaven can happily be the recipients of our prayers and sacrifices. And thus our faith brings to us a real opportunity to continue loving our deceased loved ones, a way to truly bring them comfort even though we cannot, distressingly, still sense their presence.

Of course, only God knows the particular state of our dearly departed’s souls. In His design He’s kept that knowledge from us, only having given us certainty with regard to the canonized saints, whom the Church has declared officially has having reached heaven. Therefore, we can hope heartily for our loved ones’ salvation, never cease to pray for them, and take full advantage of the treasury of grace the Church retains for the holy souls in purgatory. Even if our loved ones are in heaven, please God, we mustn’t worry that our prayers are in vain because God will surely put them to good use for someone else.

The Catechism explains the basis for our belief in praying for the dead:

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.”

The Catechism quotes St. John Chrysostom’s Homily on 1st Corinthians, “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”

What a joy our faith brings to us in keeping us truly united to our loved ones who have died. We have the ultimate prayer that we can offer for them: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We can offer an indulgence for them (click here to learn more about indulgences, courtesy of my favorite canonist). Two in particular are coming up soon: visiting a cemetery to pray for the departed between November 1 and 8 and visiting a church or oratory to pray for the dead on All Souls’ Day. We can donate to their favorite charities in their honor. And we can offer works of penance for them in a very real way. If my Uncle Arthur had a famous case of road rage, I can make the sacrifice to drive patiently and courteously for the repose of his soul. If my cousin Ann was a darling but her house was always a wreck, I can spend some time replaying cherished memories of her while cleaning up my own house on her behalf.

I think of my mighty pint-sized mother-in-law. What could I offer up for her today? Immediately I remember the first time I’d met her. I was astonished by how petite she was, feeling myself an ogre in comparison. I remember wanting to approach her as she stood on the other side of the kitchen table slowly, so as not to frighten her. I really liked her son but what would she think of me? The boys in her house were big, but maybe did she think that their companions ought to be small? I flushed, felt supremely self-conscious, and tried to muster a smile. It’ll be fine, I thought, I’m sure we’re really not so different after all. She smiled warmly back at me and it was then that I saw what she’d been doing: cutting peppermint patties in quarters before eating them. She offered me a slice and I felt sick. We’re never going to have anything in common…

I smile at the memory, and then it comes to me--I’ll eat a fistful of candy today, properly, and offer it up for her. And then my husband and I can get down to work on those indulgences.

 “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” –St. John of the Cross, Dichos, 64.