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Why Catholics pray for the dead and three ways to do it

November 1, 2011


candles at cathedral

November is dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Photo/ktylerconk. Licensed under Creative Commons.

At most funerals I attend, people say with some assurance, “he’s in a better place now” or “she’s in heaven,” as if their loved one’s immediate arrival in heaven were a foregone conclusion.

In our grief we want to believe our loved ones go right to heaven but the truth is, we don’t exactly know where they go.

The Bible provides evidence that there can be no imperfections in heaven. (Too pure are your eyes to look upon evil, and the sight of misery you cannot endure. Hab. 1:13)  According to the Catechism, most of us who don’t merit hell yet still need purification before we can enter heaven, will pass through a state the Church calls purgatory when we die:

“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)

What is purgatory like? Most of the saints’ descriptions involve fire. St Paul writes:

“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 will receive 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.” (I Cor. 3:12-15)

The fire may be metaphorical, since the souls in purgatory don’t have bodies. What causes them pain is their separation from God, even as they’re also joyful that they will enter heaven.

The thought of a loved one suffering is motivation to pray, but there is another reason. There are three states of the Church: those on earth (Church Militant), those who have died and are being purified (Church Suffering) and those who are in glory with God (Church Triumphant). (CCC 954)

In charity, we’re called to commend the souls of the faithful departed to God’s mercy and pray for them. We can help them not only through our prayers but also by having Masses said for them, by giving alms and by offering pious works for the spiritual benefit of others.

During November, which is dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory, there are more opportunities to help them by earning indulgences that are only applicable to them.

  • Visit a Cemetery: obtain a partial indulgence by praying at a cemetery during November or a plenary indulgence for visiting a cemetery each day between Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.
  • Visit a Church or Public Oratory on Nov. 2: obtain a plenary indulgence after devoutly reciting the Our Father and the Creed on All Souls Day.
  • Pray the Eternal Rest:  Obtain a partial indulgence year round when reciting:   Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen

Even if our loved ones are already in heaven, it’s still beneficial to pray because another soul might need the help. Someday we ourselves may need the prayers of the living. In his prayer for a departed emperor, St. Ambrose shows this love of neighbor:

“Give, O Lord, rest to Thy servant Theodosius, that rest Thou has prepared for Thy saints … I loved him, therefore will I follow him to the land of the living, I will not leave him till by my prayers and lamentations he shall be admitted unto the holy mount of the Lord, to which his deserts call him.”

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