What do Catholics Believe about Purgatory and Praying for the Dead?

10-29-2021From Fr. John's DeskFr. John J. Barbella

There is a great story in the Second Book of Maccabees, Chapter 12, which tells how Judas Maccabee, the hero of the story, comes across some of his soldiers who were killed by the enemy.  These soldiers were fighting for Israel’s religious freedom against pagans who were persecuting and killing those who practiced their Faith in the One True God.  But they were wearing pagan amulets, a big sin against the First Commandment.  They were basically good men who had done something wrong.

After urging others not to commit the same sin, Judas takes a collection and sends the money to Jerusalem to provide for an ‘expiatory sacrifice’ – special prayers begging God’s forgiveness – on behalf of the fallen soldiers.  He did this because he believed in the resurrection of the dead, and that his prayers could help his fallen comrades.  The Bible says that in so doing, Judas ‘acted in an excellent way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.  But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.  Thus he made atonement for the dead men, that they might be freed from this sin.”  2 Macc 12:43 – 46

It is from Scripture passages such as this one that the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory derives.  This doctrine acknowledges that there are some people who die without having fully accepted God or being perfected in this life.  They are not evil, but not perfect, either.  Because their life ended before they were fully holy, they pass through purgatory.  As the word purgatory suggests, it is a process of ‘purging’ – or purifying the deceased of anything that keeps them from being completely united with God.  This purification involves being stripped of any traces of selfishness or sinfulness, which can indeed be painful.  The Good News is that the souls in purgatory are on their way to Heaven.

But they cannot help themselves get there – which is where our prayers come in.  Like Judas Maccabee, we assist our deceased loved ones by praying for them.  We do this not in a morbid way, but filled with joyful hope for eternal life.  We also do it with the knowledge that our prayers can help our deceased brothers and sisters pass fully into Heaven, where we hope to join them one day. 

For me, this is really good news.  Over the years I’ve known so many people who were pretty good – but certainly not saints!  Perhaps you know people like that, too.  It comforts me to know that God is willing to let me help them into Heaven by praying for them.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions about how you might pray for the dead, especially your deceased loved ones.

  • Send a Mass Card when someone dies. A Mass Card is a note sent to the next of kin telling them that you have arranged to have the Mass – the most powerful and perfect prayer we have – offered for their deceased loved one.  Mass Cards can be obtained from our parish – or any Catholic parish.  An offering of $10 is usually requested, but is strictly voluntary.
  • List the names of your deceased loved ones on your All Souls envelope. These are kept near the Altar and those listed on them are included in all the Masses offered throughout the month of November – especially the All Souls Novena.
  • Have Mass offered for your deceased loved ones on or around the anniversary of their death. Again, you can arrange this through the parish office.  Many parishes, like our own, announce through the bulletin when the new Mass Book (the calendar of Masses for the year) will be opened for the coming year.
  • Remember your deceased loved ones in your prayers each day. I usually pray at least the last decade of my daily Rosary for my relatives and friends who have died.

Some Catholic Prayers for the Dead

Prayer of the Venerable Bede

We give them back to you, O Lord, Who first gave them to us, yet as You did not lose them in giving, so we do not lose them by their return.  For what is Yours is ours also, if we belong to You.  Love in undying, life is unending, and the boundary of this mortal life is but a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.  Lift us up, strong Son of God, that we may see further.  Cleanse our eyes that we may see clearly.  And as You prepare a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, that we may be with You, and those we love, forevermore.  Amen.  (Prayer attributed to St. Bede the Venerable)

A Child’s Prayer for the Dead

God of kindness and mercy, remember all my relatives and friends who have died.  Bring them to Heaven to be with Jesus, Your Son.  Amen.

Quote from St. Monica

“When I have departed this life… bury my body where you will.  But this one thing I ask, when I am gone:  pray for me always at the Altar of the Lord.”

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