As Catholic Christians, we take the traditional and devotional practice of praying for the dead as a given. It’s what we’ve been taught to do since we were little. It’s what we’ve always done when someone we love or admire has died. We turn to prayer. We pray for the dead.
The practice of praying for the dead, however, can seem a curious thing to those who do not share our faith and who have not been raised with such a custom. Understandably, they ask: “Why do you pray for them? They’re dead!”
The question reflects some strongly held cultural beliefs about death, namely, that it’s a definitive end. In death, we’re permanently separated from our loved ones. There’s nothing else beyond death. As Catholics, however, we assent to none of these beliefs. In our lives, we hold a vastly different creed. Our creed is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
This central belief in the resurrection gives unity and expression to the conviction that all believers—in varying degrees—are one body in Jesus Christ. The Body of Christ is invigorated by the Holy Spirit, and nothing—not even death—can divide the body. As Saint Paul teaches us: “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
As members of the Body of Christ, therefore, we each have certain blessings and graces. We also have particular opportunities and responsibilities to other members of the body. One of these sacred duties (and privileges) is praying for them. Such a duty doesn’t end at temporal death.
In this life on earth, I frequently find myself asking fellow believers and friends to pray for me, to make intercession for my needs and situations. Likewise, others ask for my prayers and I show my love and concern by making supplication for them. Within the body of Christ, this causes no barrier or problems with our relationship to Jesus, but actually expands and deepens it.
As Christians, we don’t see death as the end of this mutual duty and charity. We understand that in Jesus Christ, death has no power over the unity of all believers and the power we have to pray and intercede for one another.
In his public ministry, Jesus quoted the Old Testament and identified God with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He asserted, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” The patriarchs of old live on in eternity, and Jesus points to them as witnesses to us of everlasting life. We are invited to seek their help while we’re still on earth.
In similar fashion, within the Body of Christ, we turn to all the saints, the friends of God, who are our older brothers and sisters in heaven. From them, we ask for guidance, encouragement and prayer.
As believers, we also remember our loved ones and fellow believers who have left this world marked with the sign of faith. We pray that the Lord will be merciful in his judgment.
Certainly the faith community hopes that all its members find their way to heaven after death, but some souls aren’t quite ready. They need some additional purgation, or purifying work by God’s grace, in order to make them fit for God’s eternal presence.
Perhaps the believer died with some venial sins on their soul, or there was a habit of sin or an offense to others that caused deep harm, and so the soul carries some temporal punishment that needs to be cleansed by Jesus Christ in order to enter heaven without any stain.
Traditionally, this state of purification is called purgatory. Just as Jesus Christ purges and cleanses human souls in this life, and other believers can assist and serve as instruments by which this saving work is accomplished, so believers are welcomed and obliged to continue their help in this redemptive mission to other while they’re in purgatory.
As in this life, so in the next. Every Christian can still be a means through which God’s grace works and from which others can be saved by Jesus Christ.
Christians pray for the dead, therefore, because we love them and still want to assist and serve them in Jesus Christ.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby