Praying for the dead

The traditional Catholic practice for the month of November is to pray for the dead. There is a beautiful fittingness that Armistice Day, when we remember those who have fallen in battle, occurs in November. And there is a further beauty in that Armistice Day coincides with the feast of St Martin of Tours, a fourth-century soldier-saint famous for his chivalrous Christian slicing and sharing of his cloak with a poor man, with whom Christ identified according to a vision St Martin received that night (confirming, of course, Matthew 25:31-46). St Martin was then a mere 18 years old and a catechumen, but after the vision of Christ he went off immediately to be baptised. Later he became a monk in the wilds of France, and later still bishop of Tours, also in France.

But, to return to the main topic, what are we doing when we pray for the dead? It is sad to say that many, even priests, do not seem really to know what prayer for the dead is about. No doubt this is in large measure a result of the widespread failure to teach the young especially about purgatory. You can read the Church’s teaching on purgatory in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is important that we understand the concept and purpose of purgatory otherwise we will never understand the purpose of prayer for the dead.

In brief, purgatory is that state or process (and not a place as such) immediately after death in which the souls of those who are destined for heaven but not yet holy enough to stand the presence of God, are purified. To see God we must be perfect as out heavenly father is perfect (Matthew 5:48); to see Him face to face, to be in the immediate presence of God, the All-Holy, we must be holy (see Hebrews 12:14). While purgatory is never named as such in the New Testament it is still to be found clearly implied throughout the scriptures. Our Lord implies when he talks about not being released from prison until we have paid the last penny (Luke 12:57-59). And what else could St Paul be talking about when he teaches that the works of our lives will be tested as if by fire on the Day of the Lord, and that we will suffer though we are in fact saved (1 Corinthians 3: 12-15)? While Christ’s death has justified believers before God (i.e. restored them to God’s just love), nevertheless they must still be sanctified, made holy, filled with the Holy Spirit of God. In this life we are sanctified by our good works, prayer, and the grace of the sacraments, especially the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass. In the next life, if we are still encumbered by too much human imperfection, we will be sanctified through the purification of purgatory.

Here and now Christians pray for each other, especially in our needs. It is natural for a Christian to do so. Yet the Church is not confined to us here on earth. The Church extends to the souls in purgatory and to the saints in heaven, and together we all form the communion of saints. Now the saints have no need of our prayers, but being in heaven and fully conformed to God’s will their prayer has a remarkable power. They pray for us, and for the souls in purgatory, who can do no more for themselves. We, too, pray for the souls in purgatory, as we would for any Christian in need.


So when we pray for the dead we are praying for those in purgatory, being made ready to see God, those who have died but are still being sanctified. Our prayers help make them as well as us holy. And why shouldn’t they help them since, says St Paul, we are God’s fellow workers (1 Corinthians 3:9), graced by him to help build his Kingdom. However we are not praying for the salvation of the dead. That issue is decided at our deaths on the basis of how we lived our earthly lives. Our prayers cannot help save anyone after his or her death. Our prayers can only help to purify one already destined for heaven. Since we cannot know if anyone is saved or damned (except in those few cases when the Church can determine that someone is saved – a saint – as, for example, with martyrs, though it can never say if anyone is damned), we can still pray for people in the hope that they are saved, and that we can prepare them for heaven. No prayer is wasted. At the very least our prayers for the dead help make us holy.

So I shudder when I hear some, even priests, effectively pray that someone who has died might be saved. To pray for the dead is a wonderful thing – a duty in fact! – but we should be clear as to what we are praying for. We cannot help the dead’s salvation, only the sanctification of those who are saved but not holy enough yet for heaven. So when we pray for our dead, it rests on the hope that they are in fact saved, and that we can help them prepare for heaven. Still, for all that, we can still entertain the hope that a dead individual might be saved, for after all, “love hopes all things”! (1 Corinthians 13:7)

For an excellent explanation of prayer for the dead go here.

May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

St Martin of Tours – pray for us!

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