Prayer for the Dead

Dear Father,

I generally read the obituary column in my daily newspaper. Lately I’ve noticed that in obituaries which are clearly for Catholic families, there is a decrease in the number of funeral Masses that are included as part of the announcement. There might be a mention of a wake service at the funeral home or at the graveside, but no Mass. Has the Church encouraged this change or is it downplaying praying for the dead?

—Remembering Loved Ones

The Church has always taught and encouraged praying for the dead. This teaching goes back to the early Church, even before the time of the catacombs. What has changed is the attitude of many persons toward God. Our culture fosters power, pleasure, possessions, and prestige. When one gets caught up in one of these goals, there is no room left for God. They create blinders that allow us to see only the limited world before our eyes. Who needs heaven? This world provides all we want.

Is there anything you can do about this? Obviously you can’t do anything about what others do. Concerning yourself, however, you can talk to your family or caretaker about your wish to have a funeral Mass when the Lord calls you home. You could also include it in your will. You might also become more knowledgeable of the Church’s teaching on praying for the dead. This would reaffirm your own belief, as well as giving you the ability to explain it to someone else, if the need arises.

God destines us all for eternal life. “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). Death, then, doesn’t end our personal existence, only its earthly dimension. Neither does it dissolve the relationships we forged during our lifetime on earth. Rather, death opens the doorway to the fullness of life. This is the foundation of why we pray for the dead.

God is love. Unconditionally, God promises us peace, joy, mercy and everlasting life. We cannot merit these by our efforts, “for all our works are tainted” (Isaiah 64:6) and “no one is just in your sight” (Psalm 143). Jesus, however, by his death and resurrection liberates us from our slavery to sin and death. “But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Our baptism and confirmation incorporate us into the mystical body of Christ so that we too bear the sign of the cross as well as the hope of the resurrection.

As members of the mystical body of Christ, we are in communion with one another. Blessed Paul VI wrote: “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always attentive to our prayers.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church adds: “The term ‘communion of saints,’ refers also to the communion of ‘holy persons’ (sancti) in Christ who ‘died for all,’ so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all” (CCC, 961).

Today’s Church still encourages us to pray for and to our departed loved ones. “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).

All Souls Day reminds us all of our own imperfections as well as those of our loved ones. It urges us to place all our trust in God’s merciful love that reaches out to our flawed selves and also to those who have died. Therefore our prayers for the souls of purgatory contribute to their purification and are not a waste of time. That is why the Church encourages us to pray for the dead as an aid to them and a consolation for the living.

What better prayer can we offer than the Eucharist, which unites us all in Christ to form one body? The Mass makes present to us on the altar the redemptive sacrifice of Christ so we can pray for and to those who have died. Our prayer can also express our thanks and praise to God for the life of the person we have loved.

This Communion of Saints, which enables us to pray for our loved ones who have died, reveals once again our father’s merciful love for each one of us.

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