Praying for the dead: Love and charity sustain ancient tradition

| October 21, 2015 | 0 Comments
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Erin Flood was only 8 years old when her uncle died in a car accident. But because her extended family has gathered for Mass on the anniversary of his death for the past 17 years, she has come to better understand the importance of praying for the dead.

Flood, 26, and a parishioner of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, said that as a child, she viewed the annual “Uncle Dan’s Mass” on Jan. 31 as a remembrance. She recalls her mom explaining how people can’t assume that they know the state of someone’s soul when they die, and because the deceased’s soul might be in purgatory and can’t receive Communion, loved ones do that for them.

“I think when you get older and you come to understand charity and doing things for others rather than yourself, it’s definitely a gesture of that in terms of praying for others, suffering for others, offering something for others,” Flood said. By praying for the dead, she added, her experience of receiving the Eucharist is enhanced. “I’ve come to realize how much that truly unites us. We’re still one family in faith.”

Ancient tradition

As the Church prepares to commemorate All Souls Day Nov. 2, many Catholics feel compelled to join in the ancient tradition of praying for the dead — whether through the rosary, private prayer or at Mass.

Father John Gallas, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul in Loretto and St. Thomas the Apostle in Corcoran, said it’s common for people to believe that when people die, most go straight to heaven. But “people are obviously in different places when they leave this world,” so Catholics pray for all the dead at every Mass, he said.

“And this includes people like Pope John Paul II. After his death, many people presumed he was already a saint. Nevertheless, we said a Mass for him,” he said.

“Never presume a person is in heaven, unless [that person is] a baptized infant,” he continued. “We have no assurance for the unbaptized, but we can pray for them. And we can pray for the notorious. At their last moment, they might have turned to God.”

Father Gallas highlighted that praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy, “especially if we want to be active in social justice. The social sphere is not limited to the physical world,” he said.

Praying for the dead is older than the Church; the Catechism of the Catholic Church points to Maccabeus, the Old Testament figure described as having “made atonement for the dead” in 2 Maccabees.

“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,” the Catechism states. “The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.”

Praying for the dead isn’t limited to having Masses offered for them. People often pray for the dead at meals, when saying the rosary or by lighting a candle at church, Father Gallas explained.

But, “We can alleviate the sin of the souls in purgatory by having Masses said for them,” Father Gallas said, adding that at his parishes, about 50 percent of all Masses are offered for the dead. “As the love in the heart of the Church increases, people become more aware of the suffering of the souls in purgatory.”

That’s one reason why Father Gallas believes it’s important for Catholics to visit cemeteries. “There are so many souls in purgatory, and they might not have any living relatives or anyone to pray for them,” he said.

Understanding purgatory

Father Gallas explained that Catholics who are well catechized are more likely to pray for the dead because they understand purgatory.

“We cannot enter heaven unless we are perfect,” Father Gallas said. “Christ told us we must be perfect. If we die in a state of sanctifying grace, mortal sins have been absolved sacramentally; [but] venial sins, these have to be addressed.”

The Church calls this period of purification “purgatory,” and teaches that the prayers and actions of living Christians can help those in the state of purgatory obtain heaven.

Essentially, Father Gallas said, the first vocation of every Christian upon baptism is to love.

“We love God, and we love our neighbor with God’s love,” he said. “And when you love with God’s love, you have to be near to those who are suffering. Since we are able to assist these souls [through prayer], we do it out of love.”

Flood said she often prays for others’ souls, too. Another unexpected tragedy reiterated the practice’s importance. When she was 21, as she was driving, she witnessed someone jump off a bridge. She stopped and reported the suicide to police. She continues to pray for the man.

“Those prayers are always so powerful,” she said. “That really helped me process that type of experience and the importance of praying for souls.”

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