Praying For Those Who Have Died

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.  It seems almost everyone I know has lost a beloved friend or family member in the last few months.  So many others are battling cancer or some other serious illness.  The specter of death lingers in our shared emails and in our phone conversations.  We keep each other updated and share our fears and our hopes.  And we pray.  We pray for healing and comfort.  We pray that the doctors will be guided by the Great Physician and make our friends whole and healthy again.  Mostly, we pray for God’s will to be done, for we know that this is the prayer that never fails.  And when a loved one dies, our prayers for them continue on.  As a Catholic, I believe in praying for the dead because I believe in purgatory.
Souls in hell can’t benefit from our prayers and the souls in heaven can’t draw any closer to Him.  But those Christians who have died and still have an attachment to sin must be purified before entering into His presence.  The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen described it this way.  Imagine that you have hammered a nail into a piece of wood.  The nail is your sin and the wood is your soul.  Once you repent of this sin, God removes the nail but the hole remains.  Your penance and prayers, through the mercy and redemption of Christ, fill in this hole with His grace.  So, if you die with some holes still there, you need to “get things right” before embracing Him fully.  If prayers can benefit our loved ones in this life, it seems reasonable that our prayers would benefit those being prepared for heaven in purgatory.  Praying for the dead is a very ancient practice which is part of the Jewish faith.  Even today Jews pray the “kaddish” prayers offered for the purification of deceased persons.  Jesus never taught us to stop this holy practice, though He certainly taught us to stop other Jewish rituals which He knew were vain or useless.  The purification that happens in purgatory is purely a work of God’s grace and we see it as a part of the ongoing sanctifiction of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.  We read the truth of this in the New Testament in several passages:  Hebrews 12:1; Revelation 21:27; I Corinthians 3:13-15; I Thessalonians 5:23; and Hebrews 12:1-2.  The early Church encouraged the faithful to pray for the souls of the departed.  We see this in the writings of Abercius, Perpetua, Cyril of Jerusalem; Epiphanius of Salamis, John Chrysostom and Augustine.  Since all these were writing between AD 160 and AD 421, prayers for the souls in purgatory were a holy practice from the earliest years of Christianity.
Praying for the dead is a way of affirming that their life goes on, that death isn’t the end but a journey into eternal life.  Praying for the dead witnesses our communion and solidarity as members of the Body of Christ.  We continue to gently hold onto one another even after death through our faith and by our prayers.  Praying for the dead is both a human and Christian way of saying:  we have not forgotten you, we will never forget you.  Our prayers remind us that we are all made one family through Christ.  Back before I joined the Catholic Church, it seemed odd and rather sad to me that my fervent prayers for my loved one were supposed to cease at the moment they took their last breath.  Did my love for them stop at the moment of their death?  Of course not.  And as Christians, we know that life is eternal.  Love has conquered death and praying for those we love after they die is one of the great gifts of the Christian life.  One of the most beautiful of all Catholic prayers is one we pray at a funeral Mass which, by the way, is called “The Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection.”  We pray for the deceased person:  “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May they rest in peace. Amen.”  What beautiful words of love to lay at the Lord’s feet as an offering on behalf of anyone we’ve loved and who has passed on to eternal life.

“Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood Of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the Universal Church, those in my own home and within my own family. Amen.”

–the prayer of St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1301)



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