My dear old dad, dead these past four years, would have just turned ninety-nine. I pray for him and mum, who pre-deceased him by some ten years, every day as part of my morning and evening spiritual routines. I am sure that even now they enjoy the very face of God and live in the bliss of His eternal kingdom of love. I base this belief on the simple fact that they were decent and loving folk who cherished their Catholic faith.
Assuming there is an afterlife, it might well be asked: if you are confident that they are in heaven, why bother to pray for them? And if by some terrible happenstance they had actually ended up in hell, then surely no prayers would help them at all? Why indeed should we believers ever pray for the dead?
The Catholic Church teaches that there is a state after death called Purgatory. This can be understood as a kind of staging post for heaven, where those who are not perfect at the point of their death – and what good soul is perfect – await entry into heaven. As such it is a conveyor belt to heaven, and is therefore a cleansing and healing realm. Although not directly mentioned in the Bible, it is partly based on the affirmation in scripture that: “nothing defiled can enter heaven” Revelation 21: 27. In a strict sense, not even the greatest saint is fit to enter straight into heaven.
I find Purgatory is actually a very consoling doctrine in that it seems to respect the reality of human nature, that we are never completely good or completely bad. It avoids the error that some more extreme Protestant sects fell into that a person was either saved or damned, that is, that there was no middle ground at death or room for God’s mercy to intervene. That can lead to a very stern and intolerant spirituality.
It follows from belief in Purgatory that there is a real purpose in praying for the dead: to express our love (as the living) by in some way assisting the deceased’s passage through Purgatory and onwards into heaven. Sadly this long established belief also gave rise to some awful abuses in the history of the Church. As if we could ever calculate time in Purgatory… Abuses of course do not automatically invalidate the doctrine.
There is however another scripture text that directly affirms the practice of praying for the dead. In the second book of Maccabees 12: 46 we read: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.” This text actually suggests that we can have an affect on their path into heaven, and this also fits in with a theology where God is delighted to respond to human agency, and is therefore not an aloof and unheeding deity.
Whether we believe in a state of Purgatory or not I think there is another fundamental grace in praying for the dead, a grace that isn’t connected to their eternal destination. This grace is simply that whenever we pray – we receive grace, and strength and renewal of our souls. And specifically in praying for the dead, we are convicted and reminded of our own death. As Psalm 90: 12 says: “Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” Our dead, as it were, give us this grace whenever we remember them with love and pray for them – they remind us of our own death, of the fragility and brevity of this life, and therefore encourage us to think about the things that really matter. While there is always a danger in becoming too morbid, on balance it is a healthy and sensible attitude to be aware of the certainty of our own death and to live today with that awareness. Jesus himself taught that we should be ready and awake, for we know not the hour! (Matthew 24: 42; Mark 13: 33–37; Luke 21: 36)
Ultimately, when we pray in humility and from the heart, we can never demand that God change His course, but we can be absolutely certain that we change – for the better. Praying for the dead, at the very least, brings us benefit. It is an avowal of our love for them, a love which did not cease at their death, and of our hope that our loved ones are with God, or even God-bound. As such, it is love expressed.
In His love,