Tradition of praying for the dead

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In the Catholic liturgical calendar, the month of November is entirely devoted to prayer for the deceased. This is why it is nicknamed “the month of the dead”. For centuries, praying for the dead has been considered one of the greatest acts of charity a Christian can engage in. This November, Catholics are especially encouraged to remember the dead in their prayers.

The tradition of praying for the dead is found in Sacred Scripture. For example: “Therefore (Judas Maccabee) made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:46). The Church teaches that prayer for the dead is intrinsically linked to the three states of the Church: The Church Militant, or saints on earth; the suffering Church or the saints in purgatory; and the Church Triumphant, known as Saints in Heaven.

It finds an echo in the New Testament when Paul offers a prayer for a man named Onesiphorus who had died: “May the Lord grant him to find mercy with the Lord in that day” (2 Timothy 1:18). The cave-like tombs beneath the city of Rome, which we call the Catacombs, also testify that members of the Roman Christian community gathered there to pray for their fellow disciples of Christ who were buried there. In the 4th century, prayers for the dead are mentioned in Christian literature as if they were already an ancient custom.

In addition to prayers, it is recommended to participate in alms, indulgences and works of penance in favor of the deceased. Because we do not know exactly who ascended to heaven after death (except for those who were beatified or canonized), it is important that Catholics pray for all who have died, that they will soon be united with God in his Kingdom.

The Church teaches that purgatory is a time of purification for those who “die in the grace and friendship of God”. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “after death (the faithful) undergo purification, in order to attain the holiness necessary to enter into the joy of heaven” (CCC n° 1030-32). This is why we have prayers for the souls in purgatory – because they cannot pray for themselves.

We offer prayers for them and are called to contemplate our own death. Medieval Christians were intimately familiar with the words “memento mori, tempus fugit” – “remember death, time flies”. The Catholic perspective, to this day, does not fear death as the end; we see it as the hinge between earth and eternal life, where we face judgment. In contemplating death, we contemplate our relationship with our Creator.

Our prayers for the dead begin at the moment of death. Often family members gather to pray around the bedside of the deceased. The Order of Christian Funerals includes a wake service for the deceased, which may be held in the home, church or in the chapel of a funeral home. The culmination is the funeral mass and the rite of commitment (which usually takes place at the burial site). The prayers express the hope that God will free the deceased person from any burden of sin and prepare a place for them in heaven.

Death remains a mystery to us, a great unknown. Yet Christian language speaks of a hopeful imagination in the presence of death, an assurance that our love, linked to the love of Christ, can help overcome any barriers that might prevent those we love from fully enjoying the presence of a loving and life-giving God.

As Catholics, we have the great gift of our relationship with the whole body of Christ: the living, the dead and the blessed in heaven. In November, we are encouraged to make a habit of asking the saints for help and praying for our deceased loved ones.

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