Why Do Catholics Pray for the Dead? *


One day as the Jewish general Judas Maccabeus and his men were burying comrades fallen in battle, they discovered that the slain soldiers had been secretly practicing idolatry (see 2 Mc 12:39-40). "Turning to supplication," Scripture says, "they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out" (12:42). Then Judas took up a collection for an expiatory sacrifice for them in the temple. "in doing this, he acted in a very excellent and noble way... Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin" (12:43, 46).


Why did the ancient Jews pray for the dead? For the same reason they prayed for the living: It was an act of fraternal charity. They recognized that the departed needed their help to be cleansed of their sins. And they were confident that such spiritual works would benefit those who had died, just as it would have benefited someone who was still living.


The first Christians, who were Jews, maintained this "excellent and noble" practice. For example, St. Paul prayed for a friend named Onesiphorus, who was apparently deceased (see 2 Tm 1:16-18). The apostle also noted, without objection, that the Corinthian Christians were being "baptized for the dead" (1 Cor 15:29). Though we know nothing more about that ancient rite, it almost certainly would have included prayers, and early believers apparently assumed that it would help the departed in some way.


Not surprisingly, then, many inscriptions on ancient Christian tombs ask the living to intercede for those buried within. Clearly, from earliest times the Church has offered prayers and sacrifices for the faithful departed--especially the most valuable sacrifice of all, the Eucharistic sacrifice.


Some Christians object to praying for the dead. For those who are in heaven, they insist, our prayers are unnecessary. And for those who are in hell, our prayers are useless.


But there are faulty assumptions here. First, most people who go to heaven still require purification after they die before they are ready to live with God forever (see: Why Do Catholics Believe in Purgatory). Our prayers can help in that process. Second, we don't know for sure who is in hell, so we should still pray in hope for even the worst of sinners.


In short, charity demands that we should pray for the dead. And humility demands that we should ask others to pray for us when our day comes to depart.


Other related scriptures: Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:9-12; 2 Thes 1:11; Heb 11:39-40; 13:18; Jas 5:16.


Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1030-1032; 1474-1477.


*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com


Additional insights at: www.catholic.com


See also: Purgatory