It has become quite common when people die to display flowers or candles to remember their passing. This gesture is done instinctively to honor their memory, perhaps even as a way of offering a prayer for them. We seem to all want to find a fitting way to remember those who have left us. Unfortunately, some have come to question why we pray for the dead. They believe that once someone has died there is nothing else that can be done for them. They think it is more important to pray for those who are grieving, who are suffering now.
There is a longstanding tradition in the Catholic Church to pray for the souls of the deceased. How did this tradition come about and why is it still important today?
The Reality of Purgatory
The custom of praying for the dead is rooted in the very nature of heaven. The Bible indicates that there can be nothing imperfect in heaven. When describing the vision of the New Jerusalem, God’s eternal kingdom, Revelation 21:27 states, “nothing unclean will enter it.” Unfortunately, many people who die have not lived as perfect humans, and do not die in a state of perfection. They are not yet prepared to enter heaven and behold God’s face. At the same time, they have not made the choice to totally separate themselves from God. They may have expressed regret for their sins and been forgiven, but their love of God at the time of their death may not have been as profound and perfect as it should have been. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. (CCC 1030)
The souls of these individuals have not yet been completely purified of their sins. They must undergo purification after death, a fact which demonstrates that God’s mercy does not stop at the moment of death. Instead, divine mercy continues even after that moment to prepare a soul to receive God’s loving embrace in heaven.
How can we describe Purgatory? A common description from Church tradition speaks of a cleansing fire. In particular, St. Paul records:
If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person receives a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
The imagery St. Paul uses is that of the refining of metals. Fire is used to test and refine precious metals by bringing them to their melting point. At this high temperature, anything impure which has not melted can then be removed. In a similar way, in Purgatory, anything inauthentic in a person’s soul is removed. The pain is caused by being separated from God. We can imagine this as the refining fire of divine love, which purifies a soul and prepares it to enter heaven.
The Church today refers to the souls in Purgatory as “our brethren … who having died are still being purified” (Lumen Gentium, No. 51). They continue to be important members of the Church, of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ according to the belief in the communion of saints. We are able to assist the faithful departed by our prayers, just as they can also help us by their prayers (CCC 958).
The Tradition of Praying for the Dead
Prayers for the dead have been offered for many centuries. The earliest reference in the Bible is found in the second book of Maccabees. Judas Maccabees was an important Jewish general of the second century before Christ. He led his army to success in a hard fought battle. The following day he, along with his soldiers, returned to the battlefield to gather together the bodies of the soldiers who had fallen in battle. They wished to give them a respectful funeral. To their surprise, they found that the soldiers were wearing pagan amulets and had hidden them under their tunics. They had been taken from enemy soldiers who had died in a battle in Jamnia (1 Maccabees 5:58). According to Deuteronomy 7:25-26, these items should have been burned. Instead, these soldiers hid them, most likely out of greed.
Judas Maccabees and the surviving soldiers knew that they had committed a grave sin, an action that was forbidden by the Law. Yet they also knew that these men were otherwise good people, people who had died virtuously by courageously defending the law of God. They immediately offered prayers and sacrifices for these Jewish soldiers who died wearing pagan amulets. The second book of Maccabees states:
Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out… He then took up a collection among all the soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind … Thus he [Judas Maccabees] made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from their sin (2 Maccabees 12: 42-43, 46).
Judas and his companions prayed that God might deliver these soldiers from their sin and assist them on their journey to eternal light. This is the first indication we have in the Bible that the prayers of the living can help deliver the dead from any sin that might separate them from God’s presence and prevent them from finding eternal peace and life.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council mentioned that the Church has honored the memory of the dead from the beginning (Lumen Gentium 50). The Christian community in Rome gathered in the catacombs under the city to pray for those faithful followers of Christ who had been buried there. They believed that their prayers served to assist those who had died, just as the prayers of the dead could also aid the living members of the community. Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) would often offer Masses on behalf of the souls in Purgatory. He recounted the story of a monk who repented of his sins while lying on his deathbed. St. Gregory, who was the abbot, instructed that Masses should be said in his favor. After 30 days, his soul appeared to a brother announcing that he was now free of Purgatory and had entered heaven.
The Catholic Church has taught for centuries that our prayers are of assistance to those who have died. We commend their soul to God’s mercy and pray for them. We can help them not only by our prayers, but also by offering a Mass in their name, by giving alms, by indulgences or other works of penance done for their benefit (CCC 1032).
This November, a month dedicated to prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, let us remember to keep them in our prayers out of love. Let us remember that prayers can be extremely powerful in assisting the souls of our loved ones in their journey to attaining eternal life and peace.