Why We Pray for the Dead

By Scott Hahn 

Dr. Scott Hahn is the best-selling author of over forty books, including Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body. He is the founder and president of the St. Paul Center and holds the Fr. Michael Scanlan Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University. 

Photo Credit: Twinsfisch

The Church encourages us to hope and pray for all those we’ve lost. She asks us not to presume that anyone has gone straight to heaven or hell, but rather to petition God with loving confidence on their behalf.  

Our prayers and sacrifices for loved ones who’ve gone before us have real efficacy. They can bring comfort and consolation to those suffering from the purification that comes in purgatory, and they can bring about their final release from that purification, helping them experience at long last the loving gaze of the Father. The Catechism tells us: 

This teaching is . . . based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead. (CCC 1032) 

These prayers also bring comfort to us, who are left behind. In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul reminded the Christian community that they were not to “grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13). He didn’t tell them not to grieve. Grief is a normal, natural human emotion. We want to be with the people we love, so of course we grieve them when they leave us. But, when we grieve, we grieve with hope. We grieve, hoping they clung to Christ to the last or chose him at the last. We grieve, hoping that our prayers for the faithful departed can assist them on their journey home to the Father’s house. And we grieve, hoping that someday we will all be together again, sharing in the joy and peace and life that is promised to all in Heaven.  

I can’t overstate how important our prayers for the faithful departed are—for them and us. When grief takes hold of our hearts, when we long to be reunited with the ones we’ve lost, we have the comfort of knowing we can take direct action now to assist all those we’ve loved who are enduring their final purification in purgatory. Whether they died in visible communion with the Church or not, whether they were buried according to the mind of the Church or not, we can still help them. We can offer up penances great and small for them, say Rosaries for them, and obtain indulgences for them. We also can visit cemeteries and pray for them. And we can offer the traditional prayer of the Church for the dead at every meal, whether before we eat or after: “And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” 

Most of all, we can have Masses offered for those we’ve lost. No prayer is more powerful than the Mass, and there is no greater way to show our love for our dead than to have Masses said for them. This is the ancient teaching of the Church, and the ancient practice of the faithful. 

Writing in the sixth century, Pope St. Gregory the Great noted that: 

The holy Sacrifice of Christ, our saving Victim, brings great benefits to souls even after death, provided their sins can be pardoned in the life to come. For this reason the souls of the dead sometimes beg to have Masses offered for them. 

Resurrecting this tradition in our families and communities is easily the most important and powerful thing we can do to help those we’ve lost. We cannot forget that how we honor and love our dead doesn’t end with their burial. 

It goes on, every day of our life, until, God willing, we see them again. 

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In Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body, Scott Hahn explores the significance of death and burial from a Catholic perspective. The promise of the bodily resurrection brings into focus the need for the dignified care of our bodies at the hour of death. Unpacking both Scripture and Catholic teaching, Hope to Die reminds us that we are destined for glorification on the last day.