Why Pray for the Dead?
One of the great treasures of our Catholic faith – inherited from our Jewish ancestors – is an appreciation for the passage of time. Special days and seasons form a rich fabric woven through our worship, devotions and decorations.
In our hemisphere, November marks the arrival of winter, and so it becomes a natural time for the Church to turn our focus to the brevity of life and the reality of death.
On November 1st, the Solemnity of All Saints, those already in heaven shout the song of triumph and do the victory dance as they share in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
On November 2nd, we mourn all those who have died. We recall their lives and we pray for them. This day is appropriately called the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Some also refer to it as All Souls’ Day or the Day of the Dead. On this day we remember the promise of eternal life we received at baptism, and so give thanks that we are sad, yet not overcome with grief like people who have no hope (I Thessalonians 4:13).
This is a day of hope and of faith. We believe that we can assist our beloved dead on the journey to eternal life. 2 Maccabees 12:42-45 speaks of the practice of praying for the dead. Jesus does not abolish these practices, but brings them to fulfilment (Matthew 5:17).
While some Christians in the 17th century began to question the practice of praying for our beloved deceased, we see that it has been a part of the practice of our faith from the very early days. There are inscriptions on Roman Christian burial catacombs from the first century (some of the Apostles were still living and preaching) which specifically ask for prayers for the dead entombed there. We also find in the early liturgies (worship) prayers for the dead. Our most-used Eucharistic Prayer dates from around the year 215 and reflects even more ancient Christian prayers, clearly including intercession for the dead. St. Augustine writes of his prayers for his mother, Monica, at her passing.
Even Martin Luther had something to say on the subject: I regard it as no sin to pray with free devotion in this or some similar fashion: “Dear God, if this soul is in a condition accessible to mercy, be thou gracious to it.”
Hence, brothers and sisters, this month we recall that it is a holy and pious thought to pray for the dead. We loved them in life and we love them still. We help them on their final journey with our prayers and our love, which is the greatest and most lasting of all God’s gifts (I Corinthians 13:13).