Q. Why do Catholics pray for the dead
A. If Catholics pray for those still on earth, why not continue to pray for them after they die? Some Christians would reply that immediately after death, you go directly to heaven or to hell. If you’re in heaven, you have no need of prayers. If you’re in hell, prayers will do you no good. In short, they don’t pray for the dead because they don’t believe, as Catholics do, in purgatory.
What exactly is purgatory? The Catechism says, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification” (1030–1031).
Sacred Scripture and Tradition affirm that God’s ultimate intention is for us to become perfect, as He is perfect, to become like Him so that we can know, love, and enjoy Him fully in heaven forever (see Matthew 5:48, Hebrews 12:14; 1 John 3:2–3). In fact, heaven simply wouldn’t be heaven unless those who lived there had been perfected. If we were to bring along with us all the sins and weaknesses we have in this life, we would be just as miserable in heaven as we are on earth — for all eternity!
Yes, Christ died to forgive us our sins and save us. But even those who have escaped, through His infinite merits, the penalty of hell — an eternity without God — find that sin has countless other consequences. It disorders our souls, injures others, and leaves us overly attached to things we love more than we love God.
If we’re to live with God forever, then, we must be healed and make amends. If we’re selfish, we must learn to love. If we’re deceitful, we must become truthful. If we’re addicted, we must break the addictions. If we’re bitter, we must forgive.
Whether in this life or the next, however, God doesn’t wave a magic wand, bypassing our free will, to fix us. Instead, we must cooperate with His grace to undo what we have done: paying our debts, letting go of whatever binds us, straightening out whatever is crooked within us.
This process has already begun in our lives on earth. Through doing penance and accepting in faith the inescapable sufferings of this life, we can be purged of sin’s effects and grow in holiness. Nevertheless, few seem to be perfect when they leave this world. They still need some purification, a painful but purging “fire,” as Scripture calls it (see 1 Corinthians 3:14–15).
That’s precisely why we pray and offer Masses for those in purgatory. As Scripture tells us, our intercession helps them: “For it is . . . a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46, Douay).PT