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Throughout the month of November, Catholics have traditionally prayed for the dead, especially on All Souls’ Day. For many of those who grew up in the Church, this practice may seem as ordinary as venerating bones and teeth of saints; but for those who didn’t grow up in the Church or have grown curious about this practice, it can generate some important questions: Why do we pray for people who have died, aren’t they in God’s hands? Did Jesus tell us to pray for dead people? Where can I find teachings on purgatory in Scripture?

In the spirit of this month, Dr. Marlon De La Torre joined Teresa Tomeo on Ave Maria Radio for his segment, “No Bystanders!” to discuss the Catholic tradition of praying for those who have passed, where it comes from and how and why we do it. 

Debunking falsehoods about what happens after death 

The Church’s tradition of praying for those who have died comes from the Church’s teachings on heaven, hell, and purgatory. To get some misconceptions out of the way, let’s consider what the Church does not teach:

  • “We become angels when we die”: angels are angels, humans are humans and when we die, we don’t become a different being; we enter a different state. 
  • “If we’ve been baptized we go straight to heaven”: Baptism is the sacrament through which we receive the grace to be adopted daughters and sons of the Father. However, baptism doesn’t immunize us from sin and sin is what prevents us from perfect union with God — AKA, heaven. 
  • “If we’re “good people” we go straight to heaven”: being a good person is great! In fact, God is thrilled about people being good. Yet, heaven is eternity spent in an exchange of love with God. Being a good person doesn’t necessitate having a relationship with God (although it tends to go hand in hand). But a relationship with God is pretty important to spending eternity with him! 

Now that those are out of the way, let’s consider what the Church does teach about when we die. Contrary to cliché Hollywood representations, at the moment of one’s passing, he or she receives what’s called particular or individual judgment. With this judgment comes the knowledge of where one will end up: heaven or hell. 

Many souls that are destined for heaven will first have to undergo a purification process — this process is what we call purgatory. Souls that enter purgatory have the promised hope of heaven at the end of their purification. So while the thought of purgatory may sound scary or sad, it comes with the joyful hope of one day being united with Jesus for eternity! It’s a mercy that God gives us to prepare our souls for the joy of all joys: eternity with him!  

Why is it important to pray for those who have passed? 

Why we pray for those who have died comes into clearer focus with the Church’s teachings on purgatory in mind. We intercede on behalf of others, imploring God’s mercy and asking that our loved ones who have died and have entered the state of purgatory may one day be at peaceful rest with God.

Dr. De La Torre notes that this type of prayer highlights the reality that we bear the image and likeness of God. God wants us to go to heaven so, when we desire and pray for others to be in heaven, we are acting in accordance with our identities as his image-bearers! 

This type of intercession — which Dr. De La Torre calls the “spiritual engine” of the Church — is what allows us to invoke the gift of grace upon others. Maccabees 12 includes a story about Judas Maccabeus and his soldiers praying for the dead, a story that is often cited as a sign of the existence of purgatory. For us today, this type of prayer is what we place our hope in when those we love (or even those we weren’t close to) have passed. We invoke the gift of grace, asking God to purify them and prepare them for heaven.

How can you pray — especially in November — for the deceased? 

Practically, praying for the holy souls in purgatory can take a variety of forms and becomes especially pronounced in November. There are simple, familiar prayers that we can offer like the Our Father, Hail Mary, a rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet.

It is especially appropriate in November to pray for the dead while at a cemetery. When we physically go to the place where loved ones have been laid to rest, we can celebrate that they’ve gone to another state in their relationship with God and advocate for them to be at peace. Plus, this practice can also include a plenary indulgence, which is a beautiful way to pray for those who have died and entered heaven!

Finally, we can offer up our Eucharist at every Mass, when we are united with the communion of saints. We have a unique opportunity to encounter all souls who have a need to be united with Jesus. As Jesus unites himself to us through reception of the Holy Eucharist, we pray for those who have passed to be united with him for eternity.

Here in the Archdiocese of Detroit, Archbishop Vigneron has invited us to commit to praying for these souls in “A Call to Prayer” his Pastoral Note on praying for the souls in purgatory. Read the note and learn more about how you can be part of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Confraternity for Holy Souls