Wednesday, November 06, 2019 - Updated: 3:29 pm
QUESTION: During November I frequently hear sermons on praying for the dead. Would you please tell me just how our prayers assist the dead?
QUESTION: I have never quite understood why we Catholics pray for the dead. Isn’t it true that once a person dies their judgment is sealed and nothing anyone does for them can make any difference?
QUESTION: I know that the Catholic Church stresses praying for the dead. Would you please cite the Bible passages that justify this practice?
ANSWER: While the Bible does speak of praying for the dead (e.g. 2 Maccabees 12:43-45), the Catholic practice is more the product of prayerful reflection on God’s word than an accumulation of scriptural citations.
Central to this reflection is our understanding of God’s judgment. We affirm that judgment ultimately depends upon an individual’s personal relationship with God. Should a person die estranged from God and unrepentant for serious sin, an eternal punishment is possible. Once such a definitive judgment is made, no prayers or Masses can change it. Catholic prayer for the dead, however, is not meant to change God’s mind about judgment.
Our prayer for the dead rests in part upon our belief in the possibility of a period of purification before entrance into heaven. Catholic teaching, while affirming that possibility, also affirms that the prayers of the church affect the welfare of those undergoing it. Having said that, I know some will ask how this occurs.
At one point in our Catholic tradition we attempted to define in detail precisely how such prayers were effective (e.g. by numbers of days or years). It is perhaps more honest to admit that living in “time” we simply can’t chart events in “eternity.”
While unable to speak with precision, our belief in the communion of saints nevertheless assures us that the bonds of love that unite us on earth are not destroyed by death. It is unthinkable that the love we have for one another could utterly cease after death. Christians stand firm in a belief that the good we do and the prayers we utter not only affect the welfare of the body of Christ on earth, but are productive for those awaiting entrance into heaven.
It is also understandable that our prayer for the deceased is focused at the Eucharist since it is at this sacred banquet that the entire body of Christ is most united. Since we believe that Christ is the intercessor for us with the Father, intercession is made not only for ourselves but for all the members of Christ’s body (living and deceased).
Finally, our prayer for the dead is rooted in a longing to be reunited to our loved ones who have died. Since we believe that this reunion will happen in God’s eternal kingdom, we pray “thy kingdom come.” This prayer is not only our plea for reunion with Christ, but with our loved ones who have died. In this we have that vision of the coming of Christ and the establishment of the eternal kingdom “where every tear will be wiped away.”
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.