Catholic Classroom: Praying for the Dead
Question: Why do Catholics pray for the dead?
Every November, the Month of the Holy Souls in Purgatory, we pray in a special way for those who have passed away. According to Catholic belief, people who die in God’s friendship but are not yet purified from their sins enter purgatory for purification. Purgatory is not quite a punishment, but more of a refinement (in the same way that metals are refined by fire to remove impurities) so that souls may be perfected and enter God’s eternal kingdom.
Some people believe that it does not make a difference to pray for the dead, since they are no longer alive and now face the judgment of God. However, Catholics believe that praying for the dead is worthwhile and important because of our belief in eternal life and the communion of saints.
After a person dies, that person’s soul still exists, even if their earthly life is over. Our lives on earth determine, by God’s judgment, whether our souls will go to heaven, hell, or purgatory. In the case of purgatory, we believe that such a state is not permanent, but lasts only until the soul is purified and prepared to enter heaven. We can see evidence for this in Scripture, when Judas Maccabee and his army pray for fallen soldiers to blot out their sins (2 Maccabees 12:39-45). Because we, like Judas Maccabee, believe in the Resurrection, we believe it is worthwhile to pray that those who have died may participate in it.
But how do we know that our prayers will be effective? The answer is the communion of saints. According to Catholic belief, the communion of saints is “the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, the souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head.” This means that all the faithful can pray for one another, whether they are in heaven, on earth, or undergoing purification in purgatory. Our prayers as the Body of Christ are living and effective. For this reason, we offer Masses, sacrifices, and prayers to help the holy souls in purgatory reach heaven. Keep in mind that this is not a one-way relationship—they can also pray for you!
We cannot fully understand God’s judgment or guess at the fate of the departed. What we can do is pray for the souls of those who have died and are awaiting God’s glory, including those holy souls with no one to pray for them. Our prayers themselves do not save the souls of the dead—it is Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that ultimately allows souls to enter into the Resurrection.