The practice of praying for the dead is rooted in Scripture

Sometimes one is asked “What are the differences between Catholics and Protestants?” This can be quite a difficult question to answer, for there are so many different places where one might begin. But now, thanks to the ever-helpful Orange Order, answering this question just got a little bit easier.

As the Guardian reports: “The Orange Order has advised its members and all those who consider themselves Protestant to stop using the phrase RIP to offer sympathy after a person has died because it is un-Protestant, un-biblical and a superstition connected to Catholicism.”

RIP stands for requiescat (or requiescant) in pace, “May he or she (or they) rest in peace” and calls to mind the opening words of the Mass for the Dead, which are “Requiem eternam dona eis, Domine”. RIP is therefore shorthand for a prayer – May they rest in peace; but as one of the spokesmen for the Orange Order has pointed out: “From a Protestant point of view, we believe that … when death comes a person either goes to be with Christ for all eternity, or into hell … when death comes that decision has been made and no decisions are made after death.”

The Orange Order are completely correct about this. The Reformers reject the doctrine of Purgatory, along with praying for the dead. An early Protestant in this country, Lady Jane Grey, urged people to pray for her at her execution while she was still alive, not after she had died.

As far as I am able to determine, the Book of Common Prayer has no explicit prayer for the dead, and its funeral service contents itself with uplifting sentences from Scripture, Psalms, and some Collects that apply to the living. Common Worship is less uncompromisingly Protestant, but even here it speaks of commending a dead person to God rather than interceding for them.

The memorial service laid down by Common Worship goes a bit further, to my mind, and I fear that the Orange Order would not approve of it at all. As for the service at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, that never has a prayer for the departed.

Some twenty years ago, on the morning after the death of Princess Diana, which was a Sunday, many in the media criticised the fact that there was no prayer said for her in Craithie Church, which the Royal family attends at Balmoral. But this rather overlooks the fact that the Church of Scotland has no prayers for the dead and does not believe in them. If memory serves, there was no explicit prayer for her at her funeral, unless one was sneaked in through one of the musical pieces.

The idea of praying for the dead so that they may be released from their sins and journey to God is a Catholic idea, and has been the consistent practice of the Church since time immemorial. Its roots are Biblical. In 2 Maccabees 12:42-45, Judas Maccabeus orders a propitiatory sacrifice to be offered for some of his slain soldiers, so that they may be released from their sins. As for the prayer of intercession, the efficacy of this is recognised, when made on behalf of the living, by Jesus himself (see Mark 2:5); so why not on behalf of the dead as well?

Just as the rejection of the prayer for the dead and belief in Purgatory dates from the Reformation, and has marked Britain physically, thanks to the destruction of all institutions dedicated to such prayer, such as the monasteries and the chantries, so we must all acknowledge the much older tradition that continues today in the Catholic Church and which dates back to the earliest of times. If someone were to claim that praying for the dead is an innovation of some sort, I would ask them when this innovation occurred, and I would point them to the Roman catacombs, the decoration of which is a tribute to the cult of the dead and the martyrs practised by the earliest Christians: the mortuary chapels in Rome are in full continuity with the medieval chantries and any cemetery in a Catholic country today.

All this brings us to the question of why people are using the tag RIP on social media, which so distresses the Orange Order. One thing is for sure: it is not because they have turned Catholic or are about to turn Catholic. In fact the Order’s use of the term superstition is not wildly inaccurate. Superstition is a term derived from the Latin word for that which is left over. RIP is a Catholic term that has been divorced for most people from its living roots; they use it because they wish to say something, and it is a term that easily comes to hand; but it does not indicate any faith in the afterlife, or belief in Purgatory, nor is it, usually, in any sense a prayer made on behalf of the deceased. Widespread use of the term is a sign, perhaps, of the decline of religious literacy and practice, something that should concern all of us, Catholic as well as Protestant.

In drawing attention to the use of this Catholic phrase, the history of which most Protestants do not understand, the Orange Order is highlighting an important task for us Catholics. We need to catechise and evangelise, so that when people do write the letters RIP on social media they will know what they mean, and perhaps utter the prayer they stand for with their lips and more importantly in their hearts.