It has become quite common when people die to display flowers or candles to remember their passing. This gesture is done instinctively to honor their memory, perhaps even as a way of offering a prayer for them. We seem to all want to find a fitting way to remember those who have left us. Unfortunately, some have come to question why we pray for the dead. They believe that once someone has died there is nothing else that can be done for them. They think it is more important to pray for those who are grieving, who are suffering now.
There is a longstanding tradition in the Catholic Church to pray for the souls of the deceased. How did this tradition come about and why is it still important today?
The Reality of Purgatory
The custom of praying for the dead is rooted in the very nature of heaven. The Bible indicates that there can be nothing imperfect in heaven. When describing the vision of the New Jerusalem, God’s eternal kingdom, Revelation 21:27 states, “nothing unclean will enter it.” Unfortunately, many people who die have not lived as perfect humans, and do not die in a state of perfection. They are not yet prepared to enter heaven and behold God’s face. At the same time, they have not made the choice to totally separate themselves from God. They may have expressed regret for their sins and been forgiven, but their love of God at the time of their death may not have been as profound and perfect as it should have been. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
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. (CCC 1030)
The souls of these individuals have not yet been completely purified of their sins. They must undergo purification after death, a fact which demonstrates that God’s mercy does not stop at the moment of death. Instead, divine mercy continues even after that moment to prepare a soul to receive God’s loving embrace in heaven.
How can we describe Purgatory? A common description from Church tradition speaks of a cleansing fire. In particular, St. Paul records:
If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person receives a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
The imagery St. Paul uses is that of the refining of metals. Fire is used to test and refine precious metals by bringing them to their melting point. At this high temperature, anything impure which has not melted can then be removed. In a similar way, in Purgatory, anything inauthentic in a person’s soul is removed. The pain is caused by being separated from God. We can imagine this as the refining fire of divine love, which purifies a soul and prepares it to enter heaven.
The Church today refers to the souls in Purgatory as “our brethren … who having died are still being purified” (Lumen Gentium, No. 51). They continue to be important members of the Church, of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ according to the belief in the communion of saints. We are able to assist the faithful departed by our prayers, just as they can also help us by their prayers (CCC 958).
The Tradition of Praying for the Dead
Prayers for the dead have been offered for many centuries. The earliest reference in the Bible is found in the second book of Maccabees. Judas Maccabees was an important Jewish general of the second century before Christ. He led his army to success in a hard fought battle. The following day he, along with his soldiers, returned to the battlefield to gather together the bodies of the soldiers who had fallen in battle. They wished to give them a respectful funeral. To their surprise, they found that the soldiers were wearing pagan amulets and had hidden them under their tunics. They had been taken from enemy soldiers who had died in a battle in Jamnia (1 Maccabees 5:58). According to Deuteronomy 7:25-26, these items should have been burned. Instead, these soldiers hid them, most likely out of greed.
Judas Maccabees and the surviving soldiers knew that they had committed a grave sin, an action that was forbidden by the Law. Yet they also knew that these men were otherwise good people, people who had died virtuously by courageously defending the law of God. They immediately offered prayers and sacrifices for these Jewish soldiers who died wearing pagan amulets. The second book of Maccabees states:
Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out… He then took up a collection among all the soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind … Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from their sin (2 Maccabees 12: 42-43, 46).
Judas and his companions prayed that God might deliver these soldiers from their sin and assist them on their journey to eternal light. This is the first indication we have in the Bible that the prayers of the living can help deliver the dead from any sin that might separate them from God’s presence and prevent them from finding eternal peace and life.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council mentioned that the Church has honored the memory of the dead from the beginning (Lumen Gentium 50). The Christian community in Rome gathered in the catacombs under the city to pray for those faithful followers of Christ who had been buried there. They believed that their prayers served to assist those who had died, just as the prayers of the dead could also aid the living members of the community. Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604) would often offer Masses on behalf of the souls in Purgatory. He recounted the story of a monk who repented of his sins while lying on his deathbed. St. Gregory, who was the abbot, instructed that Masses should be said in his favor. After 30 days, his soul appeared to a brother announcing that he was now free of Purgatory and had entered heaven.
The Catholic Church has taught for centuries that our prayers are of assistance to those who have died. We commend their soul to God’s mercy and pray for them. We can help them not only by our prayers, but also by offering a Mass in their name, by giving alms, by indulgences or other works of penance done for their benefit (CCC 1032).
This November, a month dedicated to prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, let us remember to keep them in our prayers out of love. Let us remember that prayers can be extremely powerful in assisting the souls of our loved ones in their journey to attaining eternal life and peace.
Death and dying are parts of life. While some people fear them, others draw inspiration from death.
As nurses, it’s inevitable for us to see some of our patients die and their families deeply grieve for them. Although we can’t bring back their loved ones, there are still ways for us to provide comfort, strength and guidance to the families our patients left behind.
Here are 10 powerful prayers for the departed.
For the recently deceased
In your hands, O Lord,
we humbly entrust our brothers and sisters.
In this life you embraced them with your tender love;
deliver them now from every evil
and bid them eternal rest.
The old order has passed away:
welcome them into paradise,
where there will be no sorrow, no weeping or pain,
but fullness of peace and joy
with your Son and the Holy Spirit
forever and ever.
Prayer for the souls in purgatory
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Prayer for deceased relatives and friends
Almighty Father, source of forgiveness and salvation, grant that our relatives and friends who have passed from this life may, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the saints, come to share your Eternal happiness through Christ our Lord. Amen
Prayers for the deceased for forgiveness and peace and for mourners
Lord Jesus, our Redeemer, You willingly gave Yourself up to death so that all people might be saved and pass from death into a new life. Listen to our prayers; look with love on Your people who mourn and pray for their dead brother/sister.
Lord Jesus, You alone are holy and compassionate; forgive our brother/sister his/her sins.
By dying You opened the gates of life for those who believe in You; do not let Your brother/sister be parted from You, but by Your glorious power give him/her light, joy, and peace in heaven where You live for ever and ever. Amen.
My brother (sister) in faith, I entrust you to God Who created you.
May you return to the One Who formed you from the dust of this earth.
May Mary, the angels, and all the saints come to meet you as you go forth from this life.
May Christ Who was crucified for you bring you freedom and peace.
May Christ, the Son of God, Who died for you take you into His kingdom.
May Christ, the Good Shepherd, give you a place within His flock.
May He forgive your sins and keep you among His people.
May you see your Redeemer face to face and enjoy the sight of God forever. Amen.
Prayer for a deceased friend
I commend you, my dear to almighty God, and entrust you to your Creator.
May you rest in the arms of the Lord who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints welcome you now that you have gone forth from this life.
May Christ who was crucified for you, bring you freedom and peace.
May Christ who died for you admit you into his garden of paradise.
May Christ, the true Shepherd, embrace you as one of his flock.
May he forgive all your sins and set you among those he has chosen.
May you see your Redeemer face to face and enjoy the vision of God, forever.
Prayer for unexpected death
Heavenly Father we know and believe that our times are in Your hands, but Lord it’s so often such a shock to us when a dear loved one meets with a sudden or unexpected death – through an accident or perhaps due to some unforeseen tragedy, which takes the life of someone they loved – long before it would be expected.
Lord, we bring before You today those who are having to go through such a tragic loss and pray that You would be very close to each one that is in mourning today over such a loss – and are perhaps confused or even angry that such a devastating occurrence has overtaken them – without any apparent warning.
You are the God of all comfort Who comforts us in time of need and we pray that for those that are facing such a difficult trial today. Uphold them we pray, and ask that You draw very close to them … raise up we pray, the right people to minister to them and to be a genuine comfort and support at this time of tragedy and grief.
Lord, we don’t understand why our loved ones should suddenly be removed from us through a sudden, unexpected death – but Lord we trust You to soothe away the hurt in time – for shall not the God of all the earth do right…. In Jesus name, we pray,
Prayer for deceased parents
O God, Who has commanded us
to honor our father and mother,
have compassion in Thy mercy,
on the souls of my father and mother;
forgive them their sins,
and grant that I may see them
in the joy of eternal brightness.
Through Christ our Lord.
Prayer after violent death
Father, we bring before You those that have had the devastating experience of having someone close to them that they know and love, suffer a sudden, violent and needless death. Lord how we grieve for those that are having to experience this right now, and we pray that in Your grace You would look down with pity and mercy and meet them right at their point of need.
Lord, You are the one Who was sent to heal the broken-hearted and comfort those that mourn and are heavy-laden. You are the One Who promised that Your grace is sufficient for every eventuality – even for those having to face the sudden and violent death of someone close to them. Draw near to them we pray and lift them up into You arms of love and carry them during this time of suffering and grief for You have promised that underneath are Your everlasting arms.
Lord, as we lift up in prayer those that are having to come to terms with the sudden and violent death of a loved one – we pray that You would use this tragedy to be the thing that starts to draw each suffering soul into the tender arms of their Saviour – the Lord Jesus Christ, in Whose name we pray,
Prayer for a deceased brother, relative or friend
You are, O God,
quick to pardon and desire man’s salvation.
In Your goodness we ask You to grant our deceased brothers,
relatives, and friends everlasting happiness.
With the help of Blessed Mary ever Virgin
and all Your saints,
we ask this through Christ, our Lord.
Prayer to say on the day of a person’s death
O God, Whose property is always to have mercy and to spare, we humbly beseech Thee for the soul of Thy servant N…, which Thou hast this day commanded to depart out of this world, that Thou wouldst not deliver it into the hands of the enemy, nor forget it unto the end, but wouldst command it to be received by the Holy Angels, and conducted to Paradise, its true country; that as in Thee it hath hoped and believed, it may not suffer the pains of hell, but may take possession of eternal joys.
Through Christ our Lord.
See Also: 10 Inspiring Songs To Help With Grief
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Therefore, we see panikhidas and prayer at home for the dead are beneficial for them, as are good deeds done in their memory, such as alms or contributions to the church. But especially beneficial for them is commemoration at the Divine Liturgy. There have been many appearances of the dead and other occurrences which confirm how beneficial is the commemoration of the dead. Many who died in repentance, but who were unable to manifest this while they were alive, have been freed from tortures and have obtained repose.
How important commemoration at the Liturgy is may be seen in the following occurrence: Before the uncovering of the relics of St. Theodosius of Chernigov (1896), the priest-monk (the renowned Starets Alexis of Goloseyevsky Hermitage, of the Kiev-Caves Lavra, who died in 1916) who was conducting the re-vesting of the relics, becoming weary while sitting by the relics, dozed off and saw before him the Saint, who told him: “I thank you for laboring me. I beg you also, when you will serve the Liturgy, to commemorate my parents”—and be gave their names (Priest Nikita and Maria).** “How can you, O Saint, ask my prayers, when you yourself stand at the heavenly Throne and grant to people God’s mercy?” the priest-monk asked. “Yes, that is true,” replied St. Theodosius, “but the offering at the Liturgy is more powerful than my prayer.”
Therefore, we see panikhidas and prayer at home for the dead are beneficial for them, as are good deeds done in their memory, such as alms or contributions to the church. But especially beneficial for them is commemoration at the Divine Liturgy. There have been many appearances of the dead and other occurrences which confirm how beneficial is the commemoration of the dead. Many who died in repentance, but who were unable to manifest this while they were alive, have been freed from tortures and have obtained repose. In the Church, prayers are ever offered for the repose of the dead, and on the day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, in the kneeling prayers at vespers, there is even a special petition “for those in hell.”
St. Gregory the Great, in answering in his Dialogues the question, “Is there anything at all that can possibly benefit souls after death?” teaches: “The Holy Sacrifice of Christ, our saving Victim, brings great benefits to souls even after death, provided their sins (are such as) can be pardoned in the life to come. For this reason the souls of the dead sometimes beg to have Liturgies offered for them … The safer course, naturally, is to do for ourselves during life what we hope others will do for us after death. It is better to make one’s exit a free man than to seek liberty after one is in chains. We should, therefore, despise this world with all our hearts as though its glory were already spent, and offer our sacrifice of tears to God each day as we immolate His sacred Flesh and Blood. This Sacrifice alone has the power of saving the soul from eternal death, for it presents to us mystically the death of the Only-begotten Son” (Dialogues IV: 57, 60, pp. 266, 272-3).
St. Gregory gives several examples of the dead appearing to the living and asking for or thanking them for the celebration of the Liturgy for their repose; once, also, a captive whom his wife believed dead and for whom she had the Liturgy celebrated on certain days, returned from captivity and told her how he had been released from his chains on some days—the very days when the Liturgy had been offered for him. (Dialogues IV: 57, 59, pp. 267, 270).
Protestant theologians find the Church’s prayer for the dead to be somehow incompatible with the necessity of finding salvation first of all in this life: “If you can be saved by the Church after death, then why bother to struggle or find faith in this Life? Let us eat, drink, and be merry…” Of course, no one holding such a philosophy has ever attained salvation by the Church’s prayers, and it is evident that such an argument is quite artificial and even hypocritical. The Church’s prayer cannot save anyone who does not wish salvation, or who never offered any struggle for it himself during his lifetime. In a sense, one might say that the prayer of the Church or of individual Christians for a dead person is but another result of that person’s life: he would not be prayed for unless he had done something during his lifetime to inspire such prayer after his death.
St. Mark of Ephesus also discusses this question of the Church’s prayer for the dead and the improvement it brings in their state, citing the example of the prayer of St. Gregory the Dialogist for the Roman Emperor Trajan—a prayer inspired by a good deed of this pagan Emperor.
**These names had been unknown before this vision. Several years after the canonization, St. Theodosius’ own Book of Commemoration was found in the monastery where he had once been Abbot, which confirmed these names and corroborated the vision. See the Life of Elder Alexis in Pravoslavny Blagovestnik, San Francisco, 1967, No. I (in Russian).
Excerpt from The Soul after Death by Fr. Seraphim Rose
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