Cloud of witnesses: Why Catholics pray for the dead

By Aaron Lambert

Life is filled with uncertainties, but it brings with it one certainty that’s inescapable: death. The old saying “memento mori” – “remember you will die” – seems a somber principle of the spiritual life, but at the same time it brings a certain hope for those with the right disposition of heart. For as people of faith, we know that while our earthly bodies will die and wither away, death no longer has any sting for those who profess the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who conquered death once and for all.

Despite this reality, losing a loved one is not easy. While our faith reassures us that we will be reunited in heaven, we still mourn for those we’ve lost and cherish the memories that remain in our hearts. More than that, however, as Catholics, we also pray for the souls of those who have died. The Church recognizes the month of November as a time to remember departed souls in our prayer intentions and pray for those who, as the priest prays during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, “have gone before us with the sign of faith.”

When Catholics talk about praying for the dead, fellow Christians will often scratch their heads at the notion, and some may raise accusations that such a practice is akin to the practice of conjuring and communicating with dead spirits that’s associated with pagans and occultists. This is not what the Church means when she calls upon the faithful to pray for the dead.

The Church’s tradition of praying for the dead is inextricably linked to her teaching on purgatory. The concept of purgatory is quite misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and rightly so. It can be a bit confusing at first glance. At best it’s described as a celestial train station where souls wait to go to heaven, and at worst it’s seen as a spiritual halfway house. In truth, it’s neither of these. The catechism describes it as such: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030-1031).

To use an earthly image, think of how when camping in the woods, it is best to boil the river water before drinking it so as to purify or cleanse it, as it were, of any harmful bacteria. Purgatory is best thought of as a “purifying fire” (CCC 1031) where souls go to become pure enough to then enter the perfect and untainted splendor that is heaven. In many ways, it is an extension of God’s grace even into the finality of death.

As the souls in purgatory undergo this purification, the prayers of the faithful can help to expedite the process and deliver them from their sins. This is the chief reason why Catholics pray for the dead. It is an act of charity and mercy, not only for our loved ones who have died but for all those departed souls who have no one else to pray for them. It’s important to note that this tradition finds its basis in sacred Scripture, as it further explains in the catechism: “This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in sacred Scripture: ‘Therefore Judas Maccabeus made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.’ From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (CCC 1032).

In addition to praying for the souls in purgatory, that they might be purified to enter the presence of God, we also ask those who have died to intercede for us. Again, this is not an attempt to communicate with dead spirits; rather, as St. Paul alludes to in Hebrews 12, this “cloud of witnesses” spurs us on in our own race here on earth through their prayers to the Father. Just as we do with the saints, asking for intercessory prayer is also a beautiful way to remember and remain connected to those we have lost.

All of this finds its culmination in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, where heaven and earth collide. We offer Masses for the dead because it is in the Eucharist that our sacrifice is united to that of Christ and all those who have died. We also remember the dead in a special way during the Mass because each time a Mass is celebrated, the merits of the sacrifice of Christ’s cross are applied to those souls who have gone before us.

The beauty of the Church is that even after death, we remain in communion with the souls of those who professed Christ as Lord during their time on earth. It is Christ who binds all Christians together, and our prayers to him and for those who have died transcend time and space. Therefore, we can be confident that our prayers for the dead are not without merit, nor do they fall upon deaf ears. The Lord hears them and grants his everlasting grace to those who have died. 

Aaron Lambert is a writer from Denver.