I do not like the poem, “Safely Home”. There, I said it, let the negative comments begin! However, before you write me off as a “nut” or someone who lacks compassion, let me explain why this seemingly comforting poem is not compatible with Catholic teaching and could actually cause your deceased loved ones to suffer needlessly.
Let’s begin by looking at this poem, which is appearing on more and more Catholic prayer cards:
I am home in Heaven, dear ones;
Oh so happy and so bright!
There is perfect joy and beauty
In this everlasting light.
All the pain and grief is over,
Every restless tossing passed;
I am now at peace forever,
Safely home in Heaven at last.
Did you wonder I so calmly
Trod the valley of the shade?
Oh, but Jesus’ love illumined
Every dark and fearful glade.
And He came Himself to meet me
In that way so hard to tread;
And with Jesus’ arm to lean on,
Could I have one doubt or dread?
Then you must not grieve so sorely,
For I love you dearly still,
Try to look beyond earth’s shadows,
Pray to trust our Father’s will.
There is work still waiting for you,
So you must not idly stand;
Do it now, while life remains,
You shall rest in Jesus’ land.
When that work is all completed,
He will gently call you Home;
Oh, the rapture of that meeting,
Oh, the joy to see you come!
(“Safely Home”, author unknown)
On the surface, this poem is very comforting. Who wouldn’t want to know that their deceased loved ones are in Heaven? Unfortunately, the very first line is problematic and makes a statement that no one (other than the Church) has a right to make. Like it or not, unless your relative is a canonized saint, we don’t know if they are in Heaven. While they very well may be, we can never know for sure. Although the thought of their eternal happiness might be comforting to us, it can actually be harmful to the souls of our loved ones. Why? Mainly because if we think someone is in Heaven, we’ll probably stop praying for them!
One of the Spiritual Works of Mercy is to pray for the living AND THE DEAD. When we pray for the souls of the deceased, we ask the Lord to have mercy on their souls and to accept them into His Heavenly Kingdom. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
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. (CCC 1032)
Since the Church teaches that our prayers can benefit the souls in Purgatory, it follows that withholding those prayers will have a negative effect. Many of us can remember those days when praying for the souls in Purgatory was a “given” for Catholics. Although I’m stretching my memory a bit, it was just something we did. Here is a example, taken from the foreword of an old prayer book that I found on eBay:
Where Purgatory is, what individuals go there, how long they remain there, are questions which the Church does not answer. She does tell us, however, that the souls in Purgatory can pray for us, and that we, in turn, can hasten their departure from Purgatory by our charities, prayers and especially, by offering and having offered the Holy Mass in their behalf. (Prefatory Note, Our Dear Dead – A Little Book Of Remembrance, 1931 – Passionist Missions)
The concept of Purgatory can be supported by Sacred Scripture (Matthew 12:32, 1 Corinthians 3:15, Revelation 21:27), as can the practice of praying for the souls being purified there (2 Maccabees 12:42-46). We also see evidence of this practice in the writings of the Early Church Fathers:
“A woman, after the death of her husband…prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first Resurrection. And, each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice.” (Tertullian of Carthage, 218 A.D.)
“Then we commemorate also those who have fallen asleep before us, first patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, that at their prayers and intercessions God will receive our petition. Then on behalf of the holy fathers and bishops who have fallen asleep before us, and in a word all who in past years have fallen asleep among us, believing that it will be a very great benefit to the souls for whom the supplication is put up, while that holy and most awful sacrifice is set forth.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 350 A.D.)
“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.” (St. John Chrysostom, 392 A.D.)
So what happens if our deceased loved ones are in Heaven and not in purgatory. Will our prayers be wasted? Not at all. We trust that the Lord will apply those prayers to those for whom they are needed. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917 Edition):
The distribution of the fruits of the communion of saints among the dead, as among the living, rests ultimately in the hands of God, and is one of the secrets of His economy. We cannot doubt that it is His will that we should pray not only for the souls in Purgatory collectively, but individually with whom we have been bound on earth by special personal ties. Nor can we doubt the general efficacy of our rightly disposed prayers for our specially chosen ones as well as for those whom we leave it to Him to choose. This is sufficient to inspire and to guide us in our offices of charity and piety towards the dead; we may confidently commit the application of their fruits to the wisdom and justice of God.
Now that I’ve discussed the theory and the importance of praying for the dead, how can we put it into practice? While I would never recommend reminding a grieving relative or friend that their deceased loved one may not be in Heaven, here are some concrete steps we can take:
1. Assume that our deceased family members and friends are in Purgatory.
2. Have Masses said for our deceased loved ones and friends.
3. Obtain indulgences for the souls in Purgatory.
4. Offer up our suffering and make voluntary sacrifices on behalf of these souls.
5. Pray for the souls in Purgatory EVERY day.
6. Be careful what we say at funerals. Avoid canonizing anyone (“He’s definitely in Heaven”). Instead simply say “His suffering is over” ,”He’s at peace” or “He’s in a better place” or “I’ll pray for his soul”.
While it may not seem like a big deal, imagine you’re that soul in purgatory (unable to help yourself) while nobody on earth is praying for you or offering Masses for your soul. Suddenly it becomes a very big deal! Also, when we think about how many millions of souls are not being prayed for (Protestants, Jews, atheists, etc.) we can appreciate the need for helping them out.
Finally, if any of you happen to hear of my passing from this life…
PLEASE PRAY FOR MY SOUL!
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen. (Indulgenced prayer for the souls in Purgatory)