The question of why Catholics pray for the dead is one that often troubles non-Catholics and Catholics alike. If death is the termination of earthly life, why would we bother to pray for the deceased if their opportunity to repent and turn to Christ has seemingly ended?
The answer lies in scripture, Catholic tradition and Catholic teaching and belief about a place called purgatory.
The second book of Maccabees in the Old Testament contains this passage: “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved of their sin” (12:46)—evidence for the belief that the dead could be assisted by the intercession of the living.
One of the clearest references in the New Testament about the forgiveness of sins in the afterlife is found in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus states: “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (12:32). This statement by Jesus implies that some sins may be forgiven or atoned for after death.
Beyond Scriptural references and tradition, the Church has established a set of teachings about a state of purification that souls still tainted by sin undergo before they can reach heaven. This state is called purgatory.
What is Purgatory?
Purgatory is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is undergone by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC, No. 1030). The Catechism clarifies that “this final purification of the elect … is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC, No. 1031).
Imagine this: you are invited to an extravagant banquet. You trudge through the door in tattered and filthy clothing. You take your seat at the sprawling table. The stench of all the debris you have collected along your journey to that very banquet fills the room.
This scene could be likened to us entering heaven still riddled with the stain of the sin from our earthly life. This is why the purification of purgatory is necessary. Heaven is the perfect union between man and God. Sin distances us from God. In order to be in perfect communion with him, we must be completely free of sin.
According to Scripture, one must be “clean” to enter heaven (Revelation 21:27). Therefore, a cleaning or “purification” is necessary for those who still require it. Just like a proper guest at a grand banquet, God desires us to be purified and properly attired to enter into the wedding feast of the Lamb.
What does Purgatory mean?
The word “purgatory” comes from a Latin verb that means “to cleanse, to purify” and “a place of purification.” St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century abbot and Doctor of the Church, is believed to be the first person to have referred to a specific place of purification, like purgatory, in a sermon. However, even back in the fifth century St. Patrick is believed to have had a vision about purgatory. The most famous literary reference to purgatory, Dante’s Divine Comedy, is said to have been inspired by St. Patrick’s suspected vision of this penitentiary place.
Is Purgatory Painful?
While there is no official explanation in Church doctrine on the exact nature of purgatory, the “pains” of purgatory are often categorized in two ways: the pains of sense and the pains of loss.
The pains of sense refer to the purification that souls go through. Although the nature of this purification is not entirely known, Scripture refers to it as a “cleansing fire” (CCC, No. 1031; 1 Corinthians 3:15; 1 Peter 1:7).
The pains of loss refer to this spiritual suffering that comes from the knowledge of God and the desire for union with him, but the realization of the stumbling blocks preventing this real, lasting joy. St. Maria Faustina Kowalska wrote in her diary of a vision she had of the souls in purgatory. In her vision, she asked the souls what their greatest pain was. She writes that they all answered in unison their “greatest torment was longing for God.”
There is immense hope for the souls in purgatory, as paradise with their creator is guaranteed and within reach. St. Catherine of Genoa said: “For the souls in purgatory there is great joy as well as pain as they know for certain they are bound for Heaven!”
Can Prayers Help the Souls in Purgatory?
As the Bible and Catholic tradition point out, our prayers can help the heaven-bound souls in purgatory. Countless saints and mystics have defended these claims. Once in heaven, these purified souls, or saints, can intercede for others before the throne of God—making our prayers for the souls in purgatory even more meaningful in the long term. St. Pope John Paul II said that “praying for the souls in purgatory is the highest act of supernatural charity.”
Over the years, the Church has also collected and developed special prayers that are offered for souls in purgatory. The most commonly known prayers for the deceased are the Prayer of St. Gertrude and the Prayer for the Faithful Departed, which are found below.
Prayers for the Souls in Purgatory
Prayer of St. Gertrude
"Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen."
Prayer for the Faithful Departed
"Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen."
Masses Offered for the Dead
Since the celebration of the Mass is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC, No. 1324), Masses are an ideal time to pray for the dead, especially for those who are still on their journeys to heaven.
The Mass is celebrated not only with members on earth but also with those already in the glory of heaven (CCC 1370). Therefore, Masses offered for the faithful departed are a powerful intercession that includes the prayers and offerings of both the earthly Church and the Church in heaven.
There is Great Reason to Hope
If anything, purgatory should leave us with one resounding word: hope. God, in his infinite love and mercy, desires for us to live with him in eternity. He stops at nothing to give us the grace and means to achieve this, allowing us to be purified in purgatory so that we can enter into the fullness of heaven.
He calls upon the faithful on earth to partake in the salvation of souls by praying for those in purgatory. As the Mystical Body of Christ, it is part of our mission to aid those in purgatory so that they may enter heaven and also intercede for us in our time of need.
Pope Francis reminds us: "Let us not forget ... that so many deceased also await our spiritual support. Let us remember them in our prayers, together with Mary, ‘Queen of all Saints,’ asking that they be welcomed into the ranks of the elect in heaven.”
Consider lifting up your loved one in prayer by requesting a Mass on their behalf. You can fill out this Mass request form to have the holy Mass celebrated by Divine Word Missionaries for your specific intention.