Throughout the month of November, Christian believers are called to remember their dead and offer prayers for the repose of their souls. For some, it’s an accepted and beautiful custom, while for others it’s a cause for confusion and a sense of bewilderment.
Why pray for the dead? What benefit could such a practice have for them or the living?
The practice of praying for deceased loved ones has always been seen in the Christian tradition as consistent with a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Resurrection is so essential to the Christian faith that Saint Paul went so far as to teach “that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then…our preaching is useless and so is your faith…Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost…we are of all people most to be pitied.”
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the core of Christian discipleship, and its belief confirms for the Christian believer that death is not the end of life. As the Lord is risen, so he welcomes his people into eternity with him.
So as a person dies, she passes from this life to the next. As the faith community prays at the Catholic funeral liturgy: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended,” so it believes that death has lost its sting and no longer defines human existence.
In the Resurrection of the dead, fear can now be replaced by hope, anxiety by peace, and sorrow with great joy. This is the fundamental conviction of the Christian faith, and the inspiration behind its life of prayer, moral and bioethical teachings, and its pious customs.
As all believers are united in Jesus Christ and as he is risen from the dead, so all believers share and are united to one another in the Resurrection. This can be seen in this life by the intercessory prayer among them, their mutual worship of God, their dedicated service to the poor and those in need, and by their holy fellowship with one another.
As believers share in prayer, worship, service, and fellowship in this life, so they retain these important bonds after death through the Resurrection. This communion among believers is defined as an “exchange of spiritual goods.”
While such a definition might sound almost too mercantile, it expresses the dynamic unity among the sons and daughters of the Resurrection.
In Christian truth, therefore, as a believer dies, it does not mean that this communion with other believers is ended. Quite the contrary, she may actually be in even greater need of the community’s spiritual goods of service and fellowship.
This need of fellow believers who have died with the mark of faith is what compels other believers to pray for them.
But what need could dead Christians have? Are they not resurrected and now sharing in eternal glory with Jesus Christ?
Certainly the faith community hopes for such an eternal destination for all its members, but some souls aren’t quite ready. They need some additional purgation, or purifying work by God’s grace, in order to make them fit for paradise.
Perhaps the believer died with sin on their soul, or there was a habit of sin or an offense to others that caused deep harm, and so the soul carries some temporal punishment that needs to be cleansed in order to enter heaven without any stain or entanglement with darkness.
Traditionally, this state of purification is called purgatory. In this case, the name truly says it all.
As Jesus Christ purges and cleanses human souls in this life, and other believers can assist and serve as instruments by which this saving work is accomplished, so believers are welcomed and obliged to continue their help in this redemptive mission to those souls in purgatory.
As in this life, so in the next. And so, every Christian can still be a means through which God’s grace works and from which others can be saved by Jesus Christ.
And so, Christians offer supplication for the dead because they love them and are still a part of them. Their prayers work and are a sign of the service and fellowship they hold with them in the Resurrection. The believer’s petition is offered because she wants her beloved dead to enter paradise and share in the Lord’s glory.
This is the answer to the question about why Christians pray for the dead and what benefit it has for both the dead and the living.