Christ’s Resurrection promises eternal life. Today the Church celebrates All
Souls’ Day, and several different Gospels may be used. So in this reflection,
I’d like to focus on the importance of praying for the dead, a practice which
began before the time of Christ.
Some Jewish soldiers fighting in a war for independence, led by the great
general, Judas Maccabeus, had been slain in battle (about 160 B.C.). They were
wearing pagan amulets, a practice forbidden by Jewish law. Their comrades prayed
for the dead that the sinful deed might be blotted out. Then Judas took up a
collection among his soldiers, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an
expiatory sacrifice. Scripture comments that this was holy and pious, and
affirms that Judas made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from
their sin (2 Maccabees 12:43-46). If heaven and hell were the only possibilities
after death, there would be no reason to pray for the dead. Those in heaven do
not need prayers, and those in hell are beyond the reach of prayer. So there is
an intermediate state, called Purgatory, where people can be helped by
Many New Testament passages point to the existence of Purgatory. Jesus
describes a "payment" for sin after judgment that is not endless (Matthew 5:26).
Saint Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 can refer to Purgatory. In 2 Timothy
1:16-18, Paul prays for a dead friend, Onesiphorus: "May the Lord grant him to
Inspired by these passages, believers prayed for the dead from New Testament
times, as evidenced by inscriptions in the Roman catacombs. In the fourth
century Saint Monica made this deathbed request of her son, Saint Augustine,
"One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord
wherever you may be." Saint Augustine witnesses to the fact that early
Christians prayed for the dead (and prayed to the saints). He says that we do
not pray for the martyrs as we do pray for others who have died: "At the table
of the Lord we do not commemorate the martyrs in the same way as we commemorate
others who rest in peace. We do not pray for the martyrs as we pray for those
others, rather they pray for us."
It is indeed "holy and pious" to pray for the dead. "Eternal rest give unto
them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them!"