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 | By Justin McClain, O.P.

Why do we pray for the dead?

Have you ever been asked why we, as Catholics, place so much emphasis on praying for the dead? Even if it comes very naturally for us to do so, we may wonder: Can the dead use our prayers?

Are our prayers for those who have died as meaningful as our prayers for those who are still alive? Is praying for the dead even based in Scripture? And so forth. Let’s take a look at this important aspect of our faith, both for our own spiritual well-being and also to improve our ability to explain our faith to others.

First, it’s important to remember that the act of praying for the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, which help to steer our daily actions – whether visible or invisible – in line with Catholic moral teaching, per the Gospel. They are: 1) counseling the doubtful, 2) instructing the ignorant, 3) admonishing the sinner, 4) comforting the sorrowful, 5) forgiving injuries, 6) bearing wrongs patiently, and 7) praying for the living and the dead.

The ancient practice of praying for the dead within the Church dates all the way back to the first century A.D., and is rooted in the Bible. For example, from two centuries earlier, in the Old Testament in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46, expiation for the [sins of the] dead is referenced. Key within this passage is verses 44-46: “… for if [Judas Maccabeus] 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.”

Note the connection in this quote between praying for the dead and resurrection. The prayers that we offer for the dead, for their release from purgatory, can only lead to those souls praying for us once they achieve eternal life with God.

As stated in the general introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals: “At the funeral rites, especially at the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Christian community affirms and expresses the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints. Though separated from the living, the dead are still at one with the community of believers on earth and benefit from their prayers and intercession.”

Therefore, take time daily to pray for those souls who have gone before us, and know that a prayer for the dead is never wasted, since we are a people of hope who look forward to the fulfillment of Christ’s promises.

Justin McClain, O.P. is a veteran Catholic educator and catechist, and a professed Lay Dominican. He is the author of several books, available from Ave Maria Press.

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