Why we pray for the dead

Father Charles Bober
Photo credit: Dena Koenig Photography

FAITH FORUM WITH FATHER CHARLES BOBER

As I visited a funeral home recently, a non-Catholic friend asked me about our custom of praying for the dead.  Although I’m a lifelong Catholic, I did not feel I gave a coherent answer. Why is it that we do that?

Some people ask this question because they believe or have heard that Catholics pray for the dead in order to change God’s mind about the eternal judgment of a person.  That is not true.  Catholics believe that once God makes a final judgment about a person’s eternal salvation, nothing any human may do can change that. 

Another misunderstanding is about Catholics who have their loved ones remembered at Masses.  Some think we believe a person can live a sinful life but be saved after death by the prayers of others. Salvation does not work that way.

Although we live within a Christian community, salvation is ultimately a personal matter. It depends on one’s individual’s relationship with God through the saving grace of Jesus, as exhibited by a lifetime of love of God and neighbor.  A person who dies completely unrepentant and estranged from God cannot be saved by the prayers of others (only God’s mercy does that).  Our prayer for the dead is rooted in an entirely different reality.

We pray for the dead because we form relationships which we believe extend beyond the grave.  The Catholic funeral liturgy states: “… death is not the end, nor does it destroy the bonds that You forge in our lives.”  Because of those bonds, our prayers include remembrance of our loved ones who have died.

Catholic theology supports this belief by its teaching on the “communion of saints.”  One of the earliest teachings of the Church, it proclaims our ongoing relationship with all those united to Christ — those who are with the Lord in the Kingdom, those still awaiting the Divine presence, and those on earth.

It is understandable, then, that our prayer for the dead is often focused on the Eucharist.  At the Lord’s table we feel most united to one another — those with us on earth and those who have shared in the Eucharistic food of Lord’s table but who are no longer with us.  The liturgy continually reminds us that the Eucharistic table on earth is the foretaste of the eternal banquet in heaven. 

We also pray for those who have been judged worthy of heaven but who await entrance while undergoing a period of purification, called purgation.  We believe that our love for them and our prayerful support is an important dimension of our unity in the Body of Christ.  Perhaps praying for the dead can best be explained as a way of remembering.  As we pray for our loved ones, we remember all that they mean to us.  However, we also remember that Jesus told us:  “I am the resurrection and the life” and that He would come back to take us with Him so that …where I am you also may be (see John 14:1-6).