Why Do We Pray for the Dead?

by Fr. John A. O ‘Brien (1944)

“Why do Catholics pray for the dead?” is a question frequently asked by our non-Catholic fellow citizens. Since the practice of praying for the souls of the deceased is based upon the doctrine of Purgatory which was abandoned by the Reformers in the sixteenth century, and is now practically unknown among their followers, the latter are naturally at a loss to understand the Catholic custom of praying for their departed brethren, or as it is commonly called, “the devotion to the poor souls.”

The Church keeps this devotion before the eyes of her children by setting aside the second of November as All Souls’ Day, permitting her priests to celebrate three Masses on that day for the souls of the departed, and by designating the entire month of November as the month of special devotion for the poor souls. Let us invite our non-Catholic friends to investigate with us the basis of this devotion in Scripture, Tradition and in reason.

The Scriptures encourage us to pray not only for one another on earth, and to invoke the intercession of the saints and angels, but they encourage us to pray for the souls of our deceased brethren as well. In the second Book of Machabees it is narrated that after Judas had defeated Gorgias, he came with his company to bury the Jews slain in the battle. “Making a gathering, he sent twelve drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead.” He did not regard their sins to be grievous, “because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness had great grace laid up for them.” The sacred writer then expresses the doctrine involved herein: “It is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins” (12:43-46).

“Yet So As By Fire”

While our dissenting brethren do not acknowledge the Books of Machabees to be inspired, they must at least admit them to be faithful historical records that bear witness to the Jewish faith centuries before Christ online task management. As a matter of fact, they rest upon the same authority as Isaias, St. John, and all the other books in the Bible — the infallible teaching authority of the Church which has declared all the books in the Bible to be inspired.

Our Saviour speaks of the forgiveness of sins in “the world to come” (Matt. 12: 32) which refers to Purgatory according to St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us that “every man’s work shall be manifest” on the Lord’s day. “The fire,“ he continues, “shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide,” that is if his works are righteous, “he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn,” that is if his works are faulty and imperfect, “he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire” (I Cor. 3: 13-15). In these words St. Paul tells us that the soul of such a man will be ultimately saved, though he will suffer for a time the purifying flames of Purgatory.

Voices of the Martyrs

This is the unanimous interpretation of the Fathers of the early Church and the continuing tradition of the intervening centuries. It speaks to us from the tombs of the martyrs and from the catacombs where lie the bodies of the early Christians uajraob. In going through the catacombs of St. Calixtus under the hills of Rome, the writer saw a number of inscriptions echoing still the last words of the dying Christians: “In your prayers remember us who have gone before you.” “Mayest thou have eternal light in Christ,” was the answering prayer of those who remained behind. “Inscriptions such as these,” reports Monsignor Bames, “are found upon the tomb of many Christians in the first three centuries” (The Early Church in the Light of the Monuments, 149-157).

This Apostolic custom of praying for the dead is frequently referred to in the writing of the Fathers of both the East and West. Tertullian (160-240) in two different passages speaks of anniversary Masses:

“We make on one day every year oblations for the dead, as for their birthdays” (De Cor. Mil., 8) “The faithful widow prays for the soul of her husband, and begs for him in the interim repose, and participation in the first resurrection, and offers prayers on the anniversary of his death” (De Monag., 10).

In his funeral sermon over the Emperor Theodosius, St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, said:

“Give perfect rest to Thy servant Theodosius, tha rest which Thou has prepared for Thy saints. I have loved him, and therefore will I follow him unto the land of the living; nor will I leave him until by tears and prayers I shall lead him whither his merits summon him, unto the holy mountain of the Lord” (De Obitit., Theod., 36, 37.)

Testimony of St. Augustine

One of the most touching incidents which have come down to us from the writings of the Fathers upon this subject is from the pen of St. Augustine, who lived in the beginning of the fifth century. This scholarly Bishop relates that when his mother was dying, she made this last request of him:

“Lay this body anywhere; let not the care of it in any way disturb you. This only I request of you, that you would remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you be” (Confessions, Book 9.)

The memory of that request drew from her son this fervent prayer:

“I, therefore, O God of my heart, do now beseech Thee for the sins of my mother. Hear me through the medicine of the wounds that hung upon the wood . . . May she, then, be in the peace with her husband. . . . And inspire, my Lord. . . . Thy servants, my brethren, whom with voice and heart and pen I serve, that as many as shall read these words may remember at Thy Altar, Monica, Thy servant …” (Ibid.)

In this incident there is reflected the universal custom of the early Church of praying for the dead, as well as Her belief in a state called Purgatory.

Referenced by:  Mater Dei Seminary Newsletter

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