MILLARE: Praying for the souls in Purgatory

December 14, 2021

Why should we pray for the dead? If they are already in heaven, they do not need our prayers. On the contrary, we need their intercession. If someone is eternally damned in hell, our prayers will not help them either. Praying for the dead implies that there is some need that our intercessions can resolve for those who have died.

The Scripture passage often cited in favor of the Church’s practice of praying for the dead is 2 Maccabees 12:44-46: “For if He were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if He did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus He made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.”

Judas Maccabeus and his followers prayed for the dead and collected money so that a sacrifice might be offered for them in the temple. The Church continues this practice with the celebration of every Mass whereby the Church prays for all of the living and all of the dead.

Following the Solemnity of All Saints on Nov. 1, the Church celebrates the Feast of All Souls on Nov. 2 to focus the Church’s intercession upon the members of the Church who have died and are not yet “part of that number” when “the saints go marching in.” The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls highlights a central mark of the Church: unity or communion.

The Church is made up of a communion of women, men and children as part of the Church militant on earth, the Church suffering in Purgatory, and the Church triumphant in heaven. In light of this communion of the members of the Body of Christ, we can pray for the living and the dead and we can ask for the intercession of those who experience the beatific communion we are made for.

The Church has consistently affirmed the doctrine of Purgatory and the importance of praying for the souls in Purgatory. According to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, the “pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the more of the dead” and has also “offered suffrages for them” (§50). We should never cease to pray for our deceased loved ones.

Throughout the month of November, we pull out a box of prayer cards that we have collected over the years of deceased family members, friends, or co-workers, and as a family, we remember the dead in our prayers.

We do this because Pope Benedict XVI has exhorted the faithful to remember “the importance of prayers for the dead, especially offering of the Mass for them, so that once purified, they can come to the beatific vision of God” (Sacramentum Caritatis §32). The prayers, the Masses, or the acts of penance/charity that we offer up for the faithful departed may lead to the reception of the great gift that the Father in His mercy desires to bestow upon all his children: eternal life.

Purgatory is the antechamber of heaven. Colloquially, Purgatory is simply heaven’s front porch. The traditional imagery depicting Purgatory utilizes fire, which implies that Purgatory will involve pain. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians he reminds us that “the person will be saved, but only through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).

We can better understand the pain of Purgatory if we understand it in terms of love. When a person is separated from a beloved family member, a spouse, a sibling, or a close friend, they have undoubtedly experienced a temporary pain because of the separation. Or think of the pain when you receive a text informing you that your flight has been delayed again. The pain ceases when you are with your loved one or your plane finally reaches its destination — and typically, there is much rejoicing!

Throughout the month of November, take time with your family and friends to remember and pray for the dead at Mass and in your personal prayer. Above all, hope in Lord with persistent vigilant joy. 

Roland Millare, STD, is an adjunct professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas.