One of the huge comforts of my Christian life has been praying for the dead. I’ve been aware since I joined the Orthodox Church in 2002, continuing on into the Catholic Church, that I’m a major mess. When it comes to sins, I’ve got a good list. I require the mercy of God, and I will need the prayers of the faithful after me. I know that in the way I’ve prayed for the departed, I will be prayed for. Those prayers will be needed. In the recent Cancer Scare, this was brought home solidly: the comforting awareness of the prayers of those who love me will be my surety after my death.
Going a little Ranty here, but also nerdy. I love the Daily Office: it’s part of the Church’s liturgy that is most easily traced to pre-Jesus piety. The Jewish custom of recitation of the Psalms in a regular order as part of daily prayer carries over into the Church via the monastics. If you want to learn more about this, one of the best histories of the daily office (east and west) is Fr Robert Taft’s Liturgy of the Hours East & West. I love the Daily Office so much that I read nerdy texts about it… anyway…
In the Benedictine tradition, as well as in the use of the secular Roman office and in the high-church Anglican tradition, there’s a rite called “The Office of the Dead”. This is a specific set of Psalms and scripture readings intended to pray for the departed. Depending on the religious tradition, the content can be longer or shorter than the regular daily prayers. In many traditions, it is content added to the daily material, extending the usual daily rite (about 30 mins or so) to nearly twice the length.
Lest I get too nerdy, I’m just going to highlight 3 points:
1. In the usual, daily practice, each Psalm or Canticle will end with the “Gloria”, a brief verse of praise to God. This verse is also used at the beginning of each daily service. In the Office of the Dead this verse is not used at all. It is replaced by the “Requiem Aeternam”, a brief verse asking God to give rest to the departed.
2. In the usual, daily practice, each service begins with a hymn. In the Office of the Dead there are no hymns.
3. In the usual, daily practice, each service concludes with a short prayer called a “Collect” that sums up the intentions of prayer. In the Office of the Dead, the collect is specifically for divine clemency to be shown to the departed.
That was as it stood prior to the release of the Post-Vatican 2, Liturgy of the Hours. To this latter text I turned this morning for the Office of the Dead in prayer for a departed Bishop of our Archdiocese. I was mortified at what I found under that title, however. Taking again the 3 points…
1. The instructions for the office specifically said I should say the Gloria after each Psalm and Canticle and that the office should begin in the same way. The little verse praying for the departed was removed.
2. There were hymns of comfort for the living. “Christ is our hope”, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”, and “For All the Saints”.
3. There were several collects, but most folks would read the first, of course rather than dig in subsequent pages for “alternates”. The default collect was a prayer to “strengthen our hope that our brother/sister will share in the resurrection.”
There were literally no prayers for the dead in the Office of the Dead. Pardon my French, but WTF was the Committee thinking? How in the hell is someone supposed to find comfort in that?
I pictured a group of old men sitting around the office of the Cardinal in NYC (cuz that’s where LotH came from) in the mid-1970s saying “a prayer that God not condemn the departed might mean we, the living could be condemned. We don’t want to imply that, do we? It might scare people.
One other point: the older daily services (every day) ended with the same “Requiem Aeternam” so that each daily prayer ended with a reminder to pray for the dead – not just in the Office of the Dead, but always. This regular prayer is also missing from the newer rite.