I knew little about the Jewish customary prayer known as “Kaddish” before I read the novel “Kaddish.com” by Nathan Englander.

The novel explores the world of Orthodox Judaism, but as I read it, I could not help thinking about Catholic remembrances of the dead. Kaddish is said for the dead, to deliver them from a state that sounds a bit like our Purgatory. The prayer is thought to allow the soul to pass through the “Heavenly Court,” to be said by a son of the deceased for 11 months, every day and then on the anniversary of death.

Nathan Englander is a talented writer known for his short stories. Here he tells the story of a lapsed Jew, Larry, faced with the death of his beloved father. 

The protagonist’s sister accuses him of not being loyal to the memory of his father and predicts he will fail to pray Kaddish for their “Abba.” Her rabbi suggests that he get a proxy to pray Kaddish for the deceased and Larry finds a dot.com that allows him to pay a yeshiva student to pray for his father for the 11 months. He puts the charge on his credit card and feels that he has ensured his father’s eternal rest.

Yet his grief sets off a process of conversion: the prodigal son not only returns to Orthodox practice, but also becomes a rabbi, marries an Orthodox wife, and has two children. When he is teaching in a Brooklyn school, he encounters a student who has not prayed for his father and Larry, now Rev Shuli, experiences a wave of guilt because he had not prayed for his own dead.

This leads him to try to contact his supposed proxy, who was presented to him as a student in a Jerusalem yeshiva. Eventually, Rev Shuli goes to Jerusalem to try to buy back his relationship with his father because he feels that he has sold his birthright like Isaac’s son Esau. To his horror, he discovers that the whole business was a scam, and that a man was collecting money from almost 3,000 persons and not fulfilling the prayer.

For Rev Shuli, that means his father is still in the in-between state after death.

Reading about the proxies saying prayers for the dead hit home for me because that is a part of my daily life. I’ve prayed the traditional Spanish litany known as “Cien Réquiem” every day since my days in mission in El Salvador, and my daily Mass intentions are almost always for the deceased. The Jewish Kabbalah, a mystical book of varied interpretations, says that saying the Kaddish every year on the anniversary of one’s death is of spiritual benefit to the departed loved one. Certainly we believe that the Masses said for the deceased are also a good that we priests offer not just in their memory, but for their soul.

I often explain it this way: When you die, God is already aware of all the prayers that will be said for you and the Masses offered for the “repose” of your soul. That divine knowledge is part of your personal judgment, and I think it fits under the rubric, “love covereth many sins,” (Proverbs 10:12) and recalls Jesus’ compassion for the woman who washed his feet in tears (Lk.7:47). The soul may already be in heaven, but your Mass or your prayer was credited to the person by God’s infinite and eternal knowing.

It was strange to vicariously suffer with the rabbi about his debt of prayer for his father. The fiction made me think of all the souls I have prayed for and will pray for in my liturgies and in my personal prayer. 

It also reminded me how many Catholics had lost the sense of obligation to pray for the dead. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, according to his priest son, said that when he died he wanted people to pray for his soul and not chant his virtues. His brain operated like an Occam’s razor sometimes and his concern is another example of it: What really matters for the dead person is their salvation, and not so much how he or she is remembered.

Certainly, we should appreciate what God has given us in the person who died and even celebrate that. But our Catholic faith teaches us what our priorities are: It is a spiritual work of mercy to pray for those who have died, and it is a “work” that brings us grace, too — making lifting up a loved one to God’s mercy a win-win situation for Catholics. God is delighted to hear from the mourners, an old pastor with a dose of Irish irony once said, especially those who have been a bit remiss on their morning and evening prayers.

There are prayers for mourners in funeral liturgies, but that is not the main point. The Jewish practice of prayers and the connection with the spiritual welfare of the departed soul should remind us of a key point in our view of life and the cosmos.

It is a question that divides Christian people, especially since the rejection of the Second Book of Maccabees by the Protestants, who seem to have trouble with the Maccabees prayer for the forgiveness of the sins of those fallen in battle, as they have trouble explaining why St. Paul prays that Onesiphorus be raised to eternal life (2 Tim 1:16-18). But even with the rejection of prayers for the dead by some Christians, people still put “rest in peace” on inscriptions and tombstones. That is a prayer, too.

In my case, I have a “Jewish” novel to thank for making me appreciate again the richness of our tradition. The rabbi’s angst in the fiction resonated with this priest’s ministry. The novel’s resolution is Kafkaesque in tone, but makes the point that, as a surprising review in “The Washington Post,” said, there are “unexpected ways religious commitment can fracture a life — and restore it.”

And that, coming from a standard bearer of secularism, deserves an “Amen.”

Author’s note:

A few years ago I came across, in a book of devotions from Colombia, a devotion for the Poor Souls of Purgatory that I have adopted as part of my daily prayer. It is called “The 100 Requiems.” 

To pray this devotion a rosary is used. By praying the rosary two times around the five decades, you say 100 prayers for the deceased.

Begin with the sign of the cross. On the crucifix, pray an Act of Contrition:

“O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee. I detest all my sins because I love Thee my God who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.”

After the Act of Contrition, say one Our Father and three Hail Marys, like in the regular rosary.

Then on the beads that are ordinarily for the Hail Marys, you pray, “Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”   

After one decade of this prayer, in place of the Glory Be, you say, “Holy souls, patient souls, captive souls, pray for us who pray for you that God may grant you his glory. Amen.”

On the beads where we normally say the Our Father, the following prayer is said, 

“Eternal Father, we offer you the Passion, Blood and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ, the sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary and those of St. Joseph for the remission of our sins, the liberation of the souls of Purgatory and the conversion of sinners. Amen.”

After this first decade follows the other nine, so that in total there are 100 Requiem (from the Latin “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine”) 10 invocations of the Poor Souls and 10 “Eternal Fathers.”