Catholics believe that at death, the human soul separates from the body and faces God’s judgment.
A person then enters Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Heaven and Hell are permanent states of eternity; once a soul enters one or the other he or she can no longer do anything to either remove themselves from God’s friendship or put themselves right with Him.
The saints in heaven don’t need our prayers, nor would they have any effect on the souls of the damned.
Purgatory, on the other hand, is more of a “layover” on the way to Heaven for souls who died in friendship with God but who need a final purification of the temporal effects of sin. Our prayers can help quicken about the final release of these Holy Souls from their purification so they can finally enter into the Beatific Vision.
If our eternal fate is sealed at the moment of death, and we cannot pray to anyone out of hell then why does the Church encourage us to pray for the dead? Isn’t it already too late?
Basis for Praying for the Dead in Scripture and Tradition
The Church’s tradition of praying for the dead goes back even before the birth of Christ.
Despite the prevailing thought of our Protestant brothers and sisters, the Catholic belief in praying for the dead does come from Sacred Scripture.
The most direct instance of praying for the dead, and the most compelling Scriptural evidence for Purgatory, comes in 2 Maccabees 12. In this scene, Maccabeus prays for his fallen comrades, who died wearing forbidden and idolatrous amulets:
They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out…
[Judas Maccabeus] then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:41-44).
Sirach chapter 7 also compels us not to “…withhold your kindness from the dead.”
Early Church Fathers and writers–Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine among others–wrote of prayers for the dead. And the Roman Catacombs also bore witness to this tradition with inscriptions like: “Mayst thou live among the saints” and “May God refresh the soul of…”
Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephisians writes that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (4:5-6).
If we believe in the immortal soul, our participation in the Body of Christ does not cease after death; rather it enters a new state. In the same way the saints in heaven can pray for those still walking as pilgrims on earth, the members of the Church Militant can pray for those suffering the cleansing fires of Purgatory.
Comfort for the Grieving
Losing a friend, family member, or even acquaintance can stir up feelings of grief in our hearts. But St. Paul in his First Letter to the Thessalonians implores us not to “grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13).
As we are not God, we are freed from the responsibility of passing the final judgment on those we have known who have died. We cannot know until after our deaths where our loved ones will be spending their eternity.
We can grieve with hope that they clung to Christ at the moment of their death or that they finally turned to him at long last. We entrust our loved ones to the mercy of God by offering prayers for the dead.
How You Can Pray for the Dead
Having Masses said, praying a Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet, and offering sacrifices are all efficacious ways to pray for the dead.
Novenas also began as a way to mourn those who have died, and are still used by the faithful today.