Q: Archbishop J, why do Catholics pray for the dead?
On November 2, All Souls’ Day, many people light up the tombs of their ancestors. Days before, cemeteries become busy places as people tidied the graves of their deceased, ‘the faithful departed’, in preparation for the celebration.
In Trinidad and Tobago, Hindus and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics—all participate in this practice. For us Catholics it is not just culture, it is part of our expression of faith and hope in the resurrection of the dead.
We believe in a Church interconnected with many advocates working together on our behalf, the saints in Heaven, whom we celebrate on November 1, the great Feast of All Saints. This is the Church triumphant who pray for us. But then, there is the Church militant—we who are alive.
We receive from those in Heaven and we in turn pray for those who have died and are not yet in Heaven—The Church Expectant. This interconnectedness of the three—Church Triumphant, Church Militant and Church Expectant—make up the whole body of Christ.
That we both receive assistance and also minister to those who have already died is not strange within Catholic theology. “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain . . . But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:12–19).
The Apostles’ Creed proclaims belief in the resurrection of the body. St Paul writing to the Romans says: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11).
Praying for the dead begins with the belief that God raises our mortal bodies to life, through his resurrection power. We believe in the resurrection of the body.
Offerings for the dead
The move from belief in the resurrection of the dead to making offerings on behalf of the dead is just a short movement, which is already recorded in Scripture.
In the Second Book of Maccabees, after a battle, Judas and his followers gathered the bodies of the fallen for burial. Then they realised the dead all had images of idols on them. They had defiled themselves and were struck down. The reading follows:
And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection, (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,) And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins. (2 Maccabees 12:43–46)
Maccabees is one of the contested books of the Bible. We Catholics accept it as part of the Bible; Protestants do not. That is another matter we can discuss.
What is important is that already in the Bible, there is a mature view of offering sin offerings on behalf of those who have died. The conclusion answers our question. “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.”
The idea here is that after death there is still some opportunity for us, the living, to influence the fate of those who have died. This gets into the understanding of Purgatory.
After death those who are pure are admitted straight away into God’s presence. Those who have explicitly rejected God are damned for eternity. But some are not pure but not damned. They go into a holding bay that we call Purgatory. It is a place of purification where the soul is prepared to enter into the presence of God.
The Catechism of the Church, 1030, 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.”
It continues in 1031: “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.”
Praying for the Dead
The Church prescribes that we visit the cemetery between November 1 and November 8 and there pray for our loved ones who have gone before us. We can pray the rosary or some other prayer that we favour.
To be of benefit to the departed, we need to be in a state of grace, hence the requirement of Confession close to our visit. We also need to recite the Creed, receive communion and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father.
In addition to the visit to the cemetery, we can also offer Masses for our loved ones and also during Mass pray for them. These practices during the month of November have been ascribed with a plenary indulgence. It wipes away all debt and frees the person to be with God.
Key Message: Our prayers affect those who have died and not yet with God, just as those who are with God affect us and assist us in our journey.
Action Step: During this month of November remember your friends and family who are among the departed. Visit their graves and pray there for their souls. Offer Masses for their intentions, go to Confession and pray the Creed, one Our Father and three Hail Mary and the Glory Be for the intentions of the Holy Father.