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Understanding and Beholding the Necrology

The significance of praying for departed priests

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The Roman Missal, in its section of Masses for the Dead, provides two options of Mass orations for a priest. In particular, the Prayer over the Offerings for each option makes a vivid connection between the celebration of the Eucharist for a deceased priest and his own lifetime of priestly service of offering Mass.

In the first option, the celebrant prays, “Grant, we pray, almighty God, that through these holy mysteries N., your servant and Priest, may behold with clarity for ever what he faithfully ministered here.”

In the second option, the celebrant prays, “We ask your mercy, Lord, that this sacrifice of our service, offered for the soul of N., your servant and Priest, may now bring pardon to him, who devoutly offered sacrifice to you in the Church” (Roman Missal, Masses for the Dead, IV. Various Prayers for the Dead, 3. For a Priest, A. and B. Prayer Over the Offerings).

In both instances, the clear link is made between heaven and earth, the same sacrifice of Christ at the right hand of the Father and at the altar. It is true that all the baptized in the celebration of Mass lift their hearts to the heavenly offering. The ordained priest, however, is the one who calls the faithful to lift their hearts as he associates them with the sacrifice he offers in the person of Christ the Priest (cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 78 and No. 93). This theological reality encourages us to take notice of local necrologies for priests, and for priests to pray for deceased priests during the liturgy.

The prayers in the Roman Missal further express the Church’s faith in the power of the Eucharistic sacrifice for all the departed that the celebration of this saving mystery may bring all who have fallen asleep in Christ the inheritance of eternal redemption (cf. Roman Missal, Masses for the Dead, I. For the Funeral). It is important to understand the necrology of deceased priests, those who offered the Sacrifice on behalf of the Church, the importance of priests offering Mass and praying for deceased priests, and the necrology as a foreshadowing of the heavenly book of life.

The Significance

Necrology today typically means an obituary, a notice of someone’s death, often including a brief biography as well as a list of the recently deceased. The word comes from the Greek necro and eulogy, writing or speaking well of the dead.

In the tradition and practice of the Church, even to our own day, a necrology refers to an ecclesiastical register of those who have died. These registers were maintained primarily by religious communities to remember to offer prayers for the souls of deceased members and benefactors. Cathedrals and monasteries, as well, kept necrologies. Their form and content varied considerably. Frequently, the names of the deceased were joined to the martyrology, the calendar list of martyrs and saints. In this way, the necrology followed the same pattern of listing the deceased according to months and days, to mark the anniversary of death.

In many instances, the names of the deceased on these anniversaries were announced in connection with the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy and at times with some ceremony attached to the announcement. The rich history of these ecclesiastical registers of the dead, the privileges associated with these lists and their liturgical use point to the theological and spiritual significance of naming the deceased in the offering of the sacrifice of Christ. It is this relationship of the necrology to the mystery of Christ that needs to be recaptured today, especially for priests to pray for deceased priests, to remember those who offered the sacrifice during the sacrifice.

Today, even though there may be an official necrology of deceased priests maintained by a diocese or religious community of priests, the practical necrology is usually listed with the sacristy ordo, the order of prayer for the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist. This contemporary arrangement harkens back to the tradition of connecting the deceased with the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. Praying for the deceased during in this way unites the death of priests, the death of everyone, with the redeeming death of the Savior, so that they “may exult for ever in the glorious home of heaven” (Roman Missal, Masses for the Dead, IV. Various Prayers for the Dead, 3. For a Priest, A. Collect).

The Importance of Offering Mass

From time immemorial, the Church in every celebration of the Eucharist consciously prays for her living and deceased members. Every Eucharistic Prayer in the current edition of the Roman Missal makes this intention explicit. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes the point that with the intercessions of the Eucharist Prayer “expression is given to the fact that the Eucharist is celebrated in communion with the entire Church, of heaven as well as of earth, and that the offering is made for her and for all her members, living and dead, who have been called to participate in the redemption and the salvation purchased by Christ’s Body and Blood” (No. 79g).

In fact, when the Mass is applied in a specific way for someone who is deceased, it is possible to name the person within the context of the Eucharistic Prayer itself. The profound meaning of naming the deceased as the Eucharistic Prayer is prayed deserves special attention. The baptismal name of the deceased, someone given the promise of eternal life in the waters of baptism, is inserted for intercessory prayer in the course of the saving sacrifice of Christ as it occurs in the Eucharist, with its true and real promise of redemption. This theological fact is brought out beautifully in the extended intercession for the deceased in the second Eucharistic Prayer. “Remember your servant N., whom you have called (today) from this world to yourself. Grant that he (she) who was united with your Son in a death like his, may also be one with him in his Resurrection” (Roman Missal, Order of Mass, Eucharistic Prayer II, Masses for the Dead).

When the name of a deceased priest who offered the same sacrifice is inserted, there are additional levels of meaning as noted above in the cited Prayers over the Offerings.

Masses for the Dead specifically may take place when the news of death is received, at the time of final burial and on the first anniversary of death. Masses for the Dead can take place on weekdays of Ordinary Time when the liturgical calendar permits (cf. GIRM, No. 381). In all of these instances, the name of the deceased is announced in the course of the euchology and especially in the Eucharistic Prayer.

The necrology maintains the record of the historical date of death of the deceased, which becomes a moment into eternity with the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Priests mindful of their deceased brother priests listed each day in the necrology should be encouraged to bring their names to mind as they offer Mass, and when possible do so by naming them with a Mass for the Dead.

Role of the Liturgy of the Hours

As the necrology signals a remembrance of the deceased priest in the celebration of the Eucharist, associating him with the Lord’s saving mystery in time, so, too, it signals a remembrance of him in the same mystery throughout the day with the Liturgy of the Hours. Every Hour of the Office is linked to the Eucharist as it extends to the different times of the day the Lord’s saving mystery, the petitions of the Church and foretaste of heavenly glory (cf. General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, No. 12).

Of all the Hours, evening prayer recalls most explicitly the redeeming sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the one and same sacrifice celebrated in the Eucharist (cf. No. 39).

The intercessions at evening prayer, petitions offered at the hour of redemption, always include a remembrance of the dead with the last intention (cf. No. 186). As with the Eucharistic Prayer, those who have died in Christ are inserted into the liturgical action of his Paschal Mystery with the hour. As with the Eucharist, the naming of the deceased at this moment is particularly significant. It is an expression of confident faith that the Redeemer who had died for us brings us with his resurrection into eternal glory with the celebration of this Paschal Mystery.

These last intentions for evening prayer vary in language and style but never fail to manifest the promise of eternal life. Here is an example of one of those intentions: “Accept our dead brothers and sisters into your eternal kingdom, where we hope to reign with you” (Liturgy of the Hours, Week I, Tuesday, Evening Prayer). The name of the deceased priest from the necrology can always be included in this intention. The use of the Office for the Dead for a deceased priest follows the same possibilities as Masses for the Dead.

The Book of Life

The term “book of life” appears frequently in the Bible. The term may have an antecedent in ancient times with the keeping of genealogical records. In the Scriptures, however, the meaning is quite clear. The metaphor of writing or inscribing names is a way the Bible indicates the list of those who have found favor in the sight of God as well as disfavor (cf. Ps 56:9 and Ps 69:29).

For the Hebrews, the book of life included the names of all those found righteous before the Lord (cf. Dn 12:1 and Mal 3:16). St. Paul makes a similar reference in his Letter to the Philippians (cf. 4:3). In the Book of Revelation, however, the book of life is the Book of the Lamb, those who know the promised salvation of the Lord with its reward of glory in heaven (cf. Chapter 5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12; 20:15; 21:27; 22:19).

The necrology of deceased priests, priests of the eternal high priest Jesus Christ, carries the hope that those who have lived in his person as head of his earthly body may share forever in the banquet of the lamb in glory with their names in the book of life. This connection between the necrology and the book of life renders the catalog of the deceased priests more than a record of this life’s end date. Rather, the necrology holds out the pledge of future life for those who are remembered annually in the mysteries of Christ. Beholding the necrology turns our gaze toward eternal glory.

Need to Pray

Priests need to pray for deceased priests. Deceased priests need the prayers of priests. This prayer certainly includes devotional and personal prayer for brother priests, especially those who have been collaborators in priestly ministry, good friends and mentors. This prayer achieves its greatest effect when it takes place in union with the prayer of Christ the Priest in the Eucharist, in the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of Christ in his eternal offering that takes place in heaven. The daily perusal of the necrology assures remembrance during the liturgy. This remembrance of deceased priests, stewards of Christ’s mysteries on earth, gives hope and promise that all priests may one day experience the reality of these same mysteries as unveiled in heaven (cf. Roman Missal, Masses for the Dead, IV. Various Prayers for the Dead, 3. For a Priest, A. Prayer after Communion).

FATHER DENNIS GILL is rector and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia and the director of the Office for Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

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Papal Example

Upon the July 2, 2020, death of Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, the brother of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis wrote in his condolences: “I assure you of my prayers of suffrage for the late and lamented, that the Lord of life, in His merciful goodness, may welcome him into heaven and grant him the reward prepared for faithful servants of the Gospel.

“I pray also for you, Your Holiness, invoking the Father, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the support of Christian hope and tender divine consolation.”

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