Christians have always prayed for their dead. This practice is one of the foundations of the doctrine of purgatory in the West. The logic goes that there is no need to pray for people in heaven or hell, so there must be a place/state where prayer actually does them some good.
There is a problem, however. Purgatory is about inner perfection, not the attribution of perfection where it does not in fact exist. J.P. Arendzen puts it this way:
The Holy Souls could not enter the sight of God before they were inwardly, essentially and intrinsically prepared for it. . . . if God should for some external reason, for someone else’s sake, admit them unprepared in his presence, they would beg to return to purgatory, for heaven would not be heaven for them. . . . [if] the faithful can help them with their prayers they can only do so from within, not from without. (Purgatory and Heaven, 36-37)
But how can our prayer for our beloved dead change them inwardly? In my book Can Catholics and Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment? I proposed thinking about it like this:
Aquinas understood that it was the bonds of love in Christ, who conquered death, that make communion among the saints possible even across the boundary of death. In light of this, can we not understand prayers and offerings for the dead as acts of love? Surely we know from experience in this life that the single most effective way to teach someone about God’s love is to love them with it. Every time we act out of genuine charity, we bring both ourselves and others a little closer to God. Given the grace by God to know that those on earth still love them – remember that those in purgatory are fully aware of how much hurt they have caused their loved ones in earthly life – would not this love impel them to a greater understanding of God’s love and forgiveness? Would not knowing that a bitter quarrel has been abandoned in favor of prayer’s for one’s soul move one to forgiveness and charity as well? Again, when we reflect on what we know about the love of God from this life, where we see but “through a glass, darkly,” we can better appreciate how that love can operate when we meet it face-to-face. (30-31)
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one. He is the author of Can Catholics and Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment?