Ask Fr. Bober: Why do we pray for the dead?

Father Charles Bober

Faith Forum

I know that Catholics see November as a special time when we pray for our loved ones who have died. But, how does that work?  I guess I am really asking about the intent of our prayer.  What are we actually praying for?

Perhaps the best answer is the simplest.  We pray for the dead because we are human and tend to form relationships which we believe extend beyond the grave.  Catholic theology supports this in its teaching on the communion of saints.  We profess fellowship with all those united to Christ—those who are with the Lord in the Kingdom, those still awaiting to enter the divine presence, and those on earth.

We do that not only in our personal prayers but especially at Mass.  It is understandable that the focus for our prayers for the dead is the Eucharist.  For it is at the Lord’s table that we feel most united to one another—those celebrating with us as well as those who have shared in the Eucharist but who are no longer with us on earth.

The Eucharist is also an appropriate prayer for the dead because in the Eucharist the Lord offers us the promise of eternal life.  The liturgy continually reminds us that table of the Eucharist provides a foretaste of the eternal banquet awaiting us in heaven.  We celebrate the Eucharist longing for that feast at which we will be united with our loved ones once again and forever.

Some people think that Catholics have Masses offered for the dead to save their souls.  They assume that we believe a person can live a sinful life and then after death be saved by the prayers of good people who have Masses offered for them.  It doesn’t work that way.

Ultimately, salvation is a personal matter—it depends upon an individual’s relationship with God as exhibited by a lifetime of praiseworthy activity.  A person who performs little good in their life and dies estranged from God and unrepentant cannot be saved by the prayers of others.  We do not presume to change God’s mind about judgment.  Our prayer for the dead is rooted in an entirely different reality.

Prayers for the dead (based on the doctrine of the communion of saints) are most often offered for those who have been judged worthy of heaven but who are awaiting entrance undergoing a period of purgation.  Our prayers for them are not aimed at their judgment but rather asking God to hasten attainment of the place in heaven or those already judged worthy but awaiting glory.

While our human nature explains why some of this occurs, it also affects the way in which we can speak about these things.  Our vision of these matters is also limited because we are not God.  Ultimately, salvation and judgment belong to God alone.  Any explanation of God’s judgment and salvation betrays limitations because God’s ways are not our ways.

Perhaps Catholic prayers for the dead can best be explained as a way of remembering.  As we pray for our loved ones, we also remember the promise of Jesus that we will share in His resurrection.

Photo by Dena Koenig Photography