COMMUNION OF SAINTS – Why pray for the dead?

PHOTO: José Mario O Mandía

– Fr Leonard E. Dollentas

I overheard this story long ago about a man, who after a late night at work, took a shortcut home through an old cemetery. Halfway across, he was startled by a tapping noise coming from the misty shadows of the graveyard. Trembling with fear, he spotted an old man with a hammer and chisel, chipping away at a tombstone. With a sigh of relief, he said “I thought you were a ghost,” said the relieved man. “What are you doing working so late?” “Oh, those idiots,” grumbled the old man. “They misspelled my name”. The man ran away from the cemetery faster than any Olympic runner in the whole of Asia. 

It is in our belief as Catholics that those who have died are separated from us physically, and yet spiritually they remain connected with us. Death does not dissolve the bond of communion that Jesus left with us. The Catholic tradition holds that those who die in a state of grace enter heaven.

Those who decided willfully to reject God in a grave matter and die unrepentant, condemn themselves hell. Mortal sin “results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1861)

If throughout their lives they showed works of charity and profession of belief in God but died with some venial sin or without having done enough penance for their sins, though they are in a state of grace, they enter Purgatory. They need our prayers. The Catholic teaching regarding praying for the dead is connected with scripture, tradition and the doctrine of the communion of saints, which is part of the Creed.


Though the practice in all countries are not the same in honoring the dead, it has become quite common when people die to offer flowers or light candles to remember their passing. Other ways of remembering the dead may include offering of Mass cards to the family, and other forms of prayers that are done for the repose of the dead and to honor their memory. We seem to all want to find a fitting way to remember those who have gone before us.

Unfortunately, some have come to question why we pray for the dead. They believe that once someone has died there is nothing else that can be done for them. They think it is more important to pray for those who are grieving, those who are suffering now and still living.

There is a longstanding tradition in the Catholic Church to pray for the souls of the deceased. How did this tradition come about and why is it still important today?


The practice of praying for the dead is rooted in our basic understanding of the nature of heaven. The Bible teaches that there can be nothing imperfect in heaven. This was described in the vision of the New Jerusalem, God’s eternal kingdom in Revelation 21:27 which states, “nothing unclean will enter it.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“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.” (CCC 1030)

The souls of these people are temporarily suffering because they have not yet been completely purified of their sins. They are temporality deprived to live forever with God and to behold his face, and this is causing them suffering. They must undergo purification after death. This shows that God’s mercy does not stop even after death. The Divine Mercy of God continues beyond death to prepare a soul to receive God’s loving embrace in heaven.

How can we describe Purgatory? The scripture is rich in the description explaining purgatory. I shall dwell only with one. A common description from Church tradition speaks of a cleansing fire. In particular, St Paul records:

“If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person receives a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)

Vividly, St Paul uses the imagery of the refining of metals. In using fire to test and refine precious metals it has to be at its melting point, where anything dull and unclean which had not melted can then be removed. In a similar way, in Purgatory, anything that is impure in a person’s soul is removed. The pain is caused by being separated from God. We can imagine this as the refining fire of God’s mercy and love, purifying a soul and preparing it to enter heaven.

The Church refers to the souls in Purgatory as “our brothers and sisters … who having died are still being purified” (Lumen Gentium No. 51) They continue to be important members of the Church according to the belief in the communion of saints. We can still be of great help for them with our prayers, just as they can also help us by their prayers (CCC 958).


Within our Catholic tradition then, this is the purpose behind the various forms of prayer for the dead. We offer their names to be prayed for the during Mass, we offer our rosaries for them, we ask others to prayer for them.

The Roman Catholic Liturgy for the dead has special prayers for all those who have died asking God to forgive their sins throughout the Mass and other funeral liturgies, a practice based on the scriptures and tradition kept by the Church for over 2000 years. During the celebration of this liturgy for the dead, the readings reminds the people of the Resurrection of the body and the Liturgy of the Eucharist is offered as the ultimate prayer for the soul of the deceased, and calling to mind the people of God of their ultimate destiny to live with Him in Heaven.

The church is reminding us as well that we can help the dead not only by our prayers, but also by offering a Mass in their name, by giving alms, by indulgences or other works of penance done for their benefit (CCC 1032).

This November, a month dedicated to prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, let us remember to keep them in our prayers out of love.  There is a worth recalling episode when St Augustine’s mother was dying she told her son, “Lay this body anywhere and do not let the care of it be a trouble to you… only this I ask: that you remember me at the Lord’s altar, wherever you are”

Let us remember that prayers can be extremely powerful in assisting the souls of our loved ones in their journey to attaining eternal life and peace with God in Heaven. REQUIEM aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Requiescant in pace. Amen.