Praying for the Dead

Praying for the Dead November 2, 2011

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?

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  • Of course, Benedict said in Spe Salvi:

    “The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.”

    • brettsalkeld

      That encyclical was released very shortly after I completed my manuscript. I was able to squeeze it into a footnote, but I couldn’t alter the body of the text to include any of his beautiful reflections. Fortunately, his earlier work, Eschatology, contained much of this, at least in germ, and so I didn’t end up contradicting the Pope!

  • Anne

    Actually, that paragraph from Spe Salvi is lifted directly from Eschatology; apparently even popes take shortcuts. But hey, it was good the first time, why not use it again?

    As a Catholic brought up on the old theology of Purgatory, which seemed to be that the “real” misery begins once we leave this vale of tears (but hey, that’s the good news; it could be so much worse!), I think what the last couple popes have been saying on the subject is the biggest news story you never see reported. Really. I’m not trying to be a wise acre; the old teaching had me convinced my only hope was never to die; the new is a much welcome relief.

    But anyway, the ancient practice of praying for the dead seems a natural inclination. If you pray for loved ones you see every day, why wouldn’t you pray for those who’ve “passed” so mysteriously on? No matter how sure we tell ourselves we are that they’re safe “in God’s hands,” their fate sealed by the divine “fire,” in reality we’re left here in the dark, at least somewhat uncertain about the well-being of those whose well-being still matters. I’m not sure how the medieval custom of “offering up” supplications and suffrages for “the poor souls” works in the new understanding of “purification,” but prayer as an expression of the communion of saints makes sense. It’s not praying that doesn’t…IMHO.

  • This seems to be a kind of “naturalistic” explanation of how praying for the dead can be efficacious, and I have no problem with it. But I don’t see how it can explain something like gaining a plenary indulgence for a soul in purgatory. The effect of prayer on a soul in purgatory would seem, in some ways, to depend on a very human and presumably idiosyncratic reaction on the part of the person prayed for. Exactly how much is he or she moved by the feelings or actions of the living person doing the praying? I don’t see how such a thing could be quantified. And yet reading the rules and regulations governing the gaining of indulgences for souls in purgatory, the process sounds standardized, or mechanized, or quantified in some way. A prescribed series of actions on the part of a living individual—confession, communion, a visit to church, the recitation of an Our Father and a Hail Mary—will effect a transformation so dramatic and complete in a soul in purgatory that it will, in an instant shortcut, go straight to heaven.

    • Dan

      This is a really great point. Indulgences are a real problem when seen in a transactional fashion. I have to assume that the nature of an indulgence cannot be transactional, but I am not educated enough on the matter to defend my position academically.

      I would wager that indulgences are very much like signing up for fitness classes. You pay the fee, enroll, and then find once you show up that the process involved can be gruelling (“hey, this isn’t what I signed up for!”), but the results are there if you stick with it.

  • Mark Gordon

    when I reconciled with the Church from evangelicalism, the subject of purgatory was an especially neuralgic one with my family, along with papal infallibility and the “mother” lode: the role of Mary. I wish I’d had your book available, but that was all a long time ago. As with all prayer, it is far more effectual for the one praying than for the one prayed for, and I think you are right to frame praying for the dead as an act of love that accrues to our own gain.

  • David E

    Communicating with the dead seems to be natural for human beings, whether it’s prayer, memory, photos of Mom and Dad in a glass cabinet, ancestor worship, seances, ghostly appearances, hauntings, feelings of guilt and regret — you name it.