I often joke that my parents are professional funeral-goers. They attend a lot of funerals. Sometimes three a week, but that’s only in the busy season. Most often it’s two or three every month, but considering I haven’t been to any in the past year, that is quite a few. My parents aren’t morbid, nor do they seek out emotionally charged events just for fun. They've laid deep roots in their parish for more than fifty years, raised seven children there, and encountered and befriended countless people along the way. They are good at loving people, being with those who grieve, and they understand the importance of praying for the dead.
In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis encourages us to be the hands and feet of the Merciful God in the world. Burying and praying for the dead are corporal and spiritual works of mercy that we are called to do regularly. For many of us who are working or raising young families, it’s not practical to attend our parish’s funerals regularly. But we can pray for the dead. And we shouldn’t discount the deep spiritual importance of that simple act.
Biblical Roots of Praying for the Dead
Praying for the dead has long been in our tradition, pre-dating Christ Himself. The Jewish people paved the way for this practice. The Book of Sirach beseeches the Lord to “withhold not kindness from the dead” (Sir. 7:33). In Maccabees, Judas prays for those who have died—doing so with hopeful confidence in the promises of Yahweh: “For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Macc. 12:44-45) Many holy men and women have given us the example of praying for the dead. We pray because we have hope in the promises of our Merciful God that He truly created each one of us for Heaven.
United in the Communion of Saints
Why pray for the dead? Well, it’s really simple: as members of the Church we are united in the communion of saints; what we do affects each member, and we all are seeking the one goal of eternal union with God. Pope Paul VI tells us that “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth.” (Indulgentarium doctrina, 5) In charity, then, it is our duty to pray for the dead and beseech God’s mercy for them so that they might not suffer eternal fire, nor endure a prolonged purgation, but speedily enter the gates of Heaven.
A really beautiful thing about praying for those in purgatory is that once they are in Heaven they will return this immeasurable favor by interceding for us. Therefore, as St. Josemaría Escrivá said, we pray for the dead in part out of an “excusable selfishness” (The Way, 571). We count on their prayers for us. St. Thérèse promised to spend her Heaven doing good upon earth. And as St. Dominic neared death, he promised his sorrowful friends that he would do more good for them in Heaven than he did during his life. This beautiful exchange of charitable intercession is a gift of the communion of saints to which we belong.
Jesus Asks This of Us
A lesser-known saint to many today, St. Gertrude the Great, received revelations from the Lord in the late 13th century. In one such encounter with the Lord she was praying for holy souls and asked the Lord what good this would bring about. Christ replied, "My love urges Me to release the Poor Souls. If a beneficent king leaves his guilty friend in prison for justice's sake, he awaits with longing for one of his nobles to plead for the prisoner and to offer something for his release. Then the king joyfully sets him free. Similarly, I accept with highest pleasure what is offered to Me for the Poor Souls, for I long inexpressibly to have near Me those for whom I paid so great a price. By the prayers of thy loving soul, I am induced to free a prisoner from Purgatory as often as thou dost move thy tongue to utter a word of prayer!” (St. Gertrude the Great: Herald of Divine Love, 44)
Better known to Catholics today is St. Faustina, a modern day saint of mercy. Through her visions of Jesus’ Divine Mercy she was granted the holy insight into the power of calling upon God’s mercy for all, specifically for the dead. In her personal diary, Jesus asks her to pray for the souls who are detained in purgatory. Our Lord says to her—and to us—“immerse them in the abyss of My mercy...if you only knew the torments they suffer, you would continually offer for them the alms of the spirit and pay off their debts to My justice.” (Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, par.1226)
How can we not plead with the King to receive His faithful servants? How can we deny His simple request? It is easy for us to pray for our loved ones who have died, and perhaps even easier for us to forget to pray for the souls in purgatory outside of the typical Sunday Mass intention. But we ought to pray for all souls who are undergoing purgation and experiencing an indescribable and unquenchable longing for Heaven. In fact, we should make it such a part of our daily prayers that we have a great familiarity and affection for them and call them, as St. Josemaría Escrivá implores us, “my good friends, the souls in purgatory.” (The Way, 571)
The Year of Mercy comes to a close on November 20, 2016—just over two months away. Maybe we flew out of the gates eager to make the most of this holy year, but as time progressed, have let our good intentions fall to the wayside. Don’t consider it lost. Let’s renew our efforts to use these last two months to form a new habit or increase what we already do by praying for the dead. Tack a simple prayer onto the end of your meal blessing or morning offering. Teach your children to remember those who have died. Whatever you choose, let’s begin right now with a fervent desire that faithful souls in purgatory would be welcomed forever into the Heavenly paradise:
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
For more resources and prayers for the dead go to: