Why Pray for the Dead?
Helping our loved ones get ready for heaven
© 2004 by Paul Thigpen
For many centuries, praying for the dead has seemed to Catholics as natural as breathing. If we pray for loved ones while they are still on earth, why not continue to pray for them after they die?
Nevertheless, most Protestant Christians don't pray for the faithful departed. They believe that immediately after death, you go directly to heaven or to hell. If you're in heaven, they conclude, you have no need of prayers. If you're in hell, prayers will do you no good.
Disturbingly, the latter view seems to be assumed these days by more and more Catholics. As evidence, witness the remarks at the typical Catholic funeral. Homilists and others often speak confidently of the deceased as if they were assuredly already in heaven — as if there were nothing left to do but to "celebrate the life" that is now finished.
The intention is no doubt pastoral; imagining a loved one resting perfectly in peace can be comforting. Yet to speak this way of the faithful departed may be doing them a terrible disservice.
It fails to recall their need for our intercession. It robs the bereaved of any sense of urgency to keep the beloved dead in their prayers. In short, it's a subtle denial of the reality of purgatory.
What exactly is purgatory? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "all who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification" (1030-31).
Before the dead in Christ can go to heaven, then, they must be purified. And our prayers can help them in that process.
Sacred Scripture and Tradition repeatedly affirm that God's ultimate intention is for us to become perfect as He is perfect (see Mt 5:48). Why? Because God wants us to live forever in friendship with Him, and He Himself is completely holy — without sin or weakness of any kind. To see God face-to-face in heaven, and to know, love, and enjoy Him there fully forever, we must be like Him (see Heb 12:14; 1 Jn 3:2-3).
In fact, heaven simply wouldn't be heaven unless those who lived there had been perfected. If we were to bring along with us all the sins and weaknesses we have in this life, heaven would be just as full of troubles as our life on earth — troubles that would last for eternity.
The Consequences of Sin
Didn't Christ die to forgive us our sins and save us? Yes! But even those who have escaped, through His infinite merits, the penalty of hell — an eternity without God — find that sin has countless other consequences.
It disorders our souls. It injures others. It leaves us overly attached to things we have chosen to love more than we love God.
If we are to live with God forever, then, repairs and reparations are necessary — that is, we must be healed and we must make amends. If we're selfish, we must learn to love. If we're deceitful, we must learn to tell the truth. If we're addicted, we must break the addictions. And if we're bitter, we must forgive.
Suppose a driver injures himself and totals another person's car in a collision because of his willful recklessness. As the ambulance arrives at the hospital, he expresses remorse for his misbehavior. So the other driver forgives him; that is, the other driver chooses to let go of the personal offense and not hold it against him.
Yet other consequences of the reckless driver's sin must still be dealt with. His broken bones must be set. The wrecked cars must be paid for. His driver's license must be suspended until he successfully completes a course that trains drivers to be responsible.
The process will not be pleasant. Having broken bones set is painful. Paying for a wrecked car is costly. Learning to change lifelong habits is wearying.
Even so, the process is restorative — a matter of both mercy (the repairs) and justice (the reparations). In the end, the reckless driver will be a new man.
Holy and Wholesome
The truth is that we've all wrecked our lives, and the lives of others, to one extent or another. Whether in this life or the next, however, God doesn't wave a magic wand, bypassing our free will, to fix the situation. Instead, we undergo a procedure to undo what we have done: paying our debts, letting go of whatever binds us, straightening out whatever is crooked within us, learning to drive aright.
Of course, this process has already begun in the lives of the faithful on earth. Through doing penance and accepting in faith the inescapable sufferings of the present life, we can be purged of sin's effects and grow in holiness.
Nevertheless, if we look honestly at those we know who have died — even if they were faithful Christians — we must admit that few if any were perfect when they left this world. They still needed, as we ourselves probably will, some "cleaning up," a painful but purging "fire," as the Scripture calls it (see 1 Corinthians 3:14-15).
That's precisely why we pray and offer Masses for those in purgatory. Our intercession helps them in their struggles now just as it helped them while they were on earth. No wonder, then, that the Scripture urges us not to forget the faithful departed: "For it is … a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins" (2 Maccabees 12:46, Douay).