Why Pray for the Dead?
Helping our loved ones get ready for heaven
© 1998 by Paul Thigpen
For most Catholic families, praying for the dead seems 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 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.
Since your children probably have friends who have been raised in this belief, you might be challenged one day to explain why you pray for the dead. If that should happen, you will need to explain the important Catholic doctrine of purgatory.
What exactly is purgatory? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "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).
We pray for the dead, then, because they need our prayers. Before they can go to heaven, they have to be purified.
The Scripture and Catholic Tradition repeatedly affirm that God's ultimate intention is for us to become perfect as He is perfect (see Matthew 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 Hebrews 12:14; 1 John 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 just as full of troubles as our life on earth.
Doesn't God forgive us our sins in Christ? Yes! But we must understand what that means. If we die in a state of grace, then we die forgiven of the guilt — the break that sin causes in our relationship with God — that would have kept us from life with Him in heaven. But sin has other consequences besides guilt. It disorders our souls. It leaves us overly attached to things we have chosen to love more than we love God.
We need more than forgiveness of guilt if we are to live with God forever. We need to be made whole. If we're selfish, we must become loving. If we're deceitful, we must become truthful. If we're addicted, we must break the addictions. And if we're bitter, we must let go of others' offenses.
Suppose you tell your five-year-old that he can't jump off a tall fence because he will hurt himself. He does it anyway, and breaks his arm. When he calls you crying in pain, he's quite remorseful for his misbehavior and afraid that your anger will alienate you from him.
At that point, you forgive him for disobeying you — that is, you lay aside your anger at his wrongdoing so that it no longer stands between the two of you. But other consequences of his sin must still be dealt with. You must take him to the hospital to have his broken arm set.
The truth is that we've all disobeyed God and broken some of our spiritual "bones." Whether in this life or the next, God doesn't wave a magic wand, bypassing our free will, to fix us. Instead, we undergo a process to undo what we have done: letting go of whatever binds us, straightening out whatever is crooked within us, learning to love Him above all things.
Of course, this cleansing 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 were perfect when they left this world. They still needed, as we ourselves probably will, some "cleaning up," a kind of purging "fire," as the Scripture calls it (see 1 Corinthians 3:14-15), to burn away their remaining faults.
That's precisely why we pray and offer Masses for those in purgatory. Our intercession helps them 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).
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