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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

033117 pray 2WASHINGTON, D.C. — Praying for the dead might not make sense to nonbelievers but for Catholics it is part and parcel of the faith tradition, rooted in Old Testament readings and supported by the Catechism and the Church’s funeral liturgy.

“Our faith teaches us to pray for the dead,” said Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., in a 2015 All Saints’ Day reflection, stressing that although people hope that those who die are with God and the angels and saints, it is not necessarily a guarantee.

“Scripture teaches that all of the dead shall be raised. However, only the just are destined for the kingdom of God,” the bishop wrote.

Pictured: Memorial candles are seen next to a statue of St. Paul in a mausoleum alcove at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, N.Y. (CNS | Gregory A. Shemitz)

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the clearest Bible reference about prayers for the dead is from the Second Book of Maccabees. When soldiers were preparing the bodies of their slain comrades for burial they discovered they were wearing amulets taken from a pagan temple which violated the law of Deuteronomy so they prayed that God would forgive the sin these men had committed.

The New Testament echoes this notion in the second letter of Timothy when Paul prays for someone who died named Onesiphorus, saying: “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also has something to say about prayers for the dead, stating: “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” (1030).

The Roman catacombs where early Christians were buried also were places of prayer.

Today, prayers for the dead begin at the moment of death, often when family members are gathered around the bedside of the person who has died.

Prayers for death and grieving are among the “Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers,” published in 2007 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that includes prayers immediately after death, prayers for mourners, prayers at the graveside and a more general prayer for the dead.

Of course these prayers continue in the funeral liturgy, which is the “central liturgical celebration of the Christian community for the deceased,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ overview of Catholic funeral rites, online at www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/bereavement-and-funerals/overview-of-catholic-funeral-rites.cfm.

The funeral liturgy, the website points out, is “an act of worship, and not merely an expression of grief.”

It is a time when the Church gathers with the family and friends of the deceased “to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery,” it adds.

The prayers in the funeral liturgy express hope that God will free the person who has died from any burden of sin and prepare a place for him or her in heaven.

“The funeral rite is a prayer for the dead, designated by the Church as the liturgy of Christian burial,” wrote Bishop Braxton in his reflection.

He noted that many parishes “regularly disregard” the emphasis of this liturgy by printing funeral programs which say: “the Mass of the Resurrection: A Celebration of Life,’ even though the person has obviously not yet been raised from the dead.”

According to the Catechism, most Catholics who don’t merit hell still need purification before entering heaven and pass through a state when they die that the Church describes as purgatory.

In a question-and-answer page on www.BustedHalo.com, a Paulist-run website, Paulist Father Joe Scott said praying for the dead has “further origins in our belief in the communion of saints.”

The priest, an associate pastor at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Community in Los Angeles, added that living members of this communion can “assist each other in faith by prayers and other forms of spiritual support.”

“Christians who have died continue to be members of the communion of saints,” he wrote. “We believe that we can assist them by our prayers, and they can assist us by theirs.”

— Carol Zimmermann, Catholic News Service


Prayers for the dead

The Mass is the highest form of prayer in the Church, and the most effective prayer that could be said on behalf of those who have gone before us. In Masses for the dead, and especially funeral Masses, “the Church offers the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ’s Pasch for the dead so that, since all the members of Christ’s Body are in communion with one another, what implores spiritual help for some, may bring comforting hope to others.” ("General Instruction of the Roman Missal," 379)


As death approaches, the Church stays close to the one who is dying, to give comfort and support. The family should ask that Communion be brought to the dying (this is called “Viaticum, Latin for “food for the journey”).

Members of the local church may wish to join the family in a vigil of prayer. After the person’s death, the family is encouraged to continue praying, and to participate in the preparation of the vigil (wake) and funeral liturgies.

The following prayer may be recited with a dying person, alternating with times of silence. The Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be are also appropriate. The dying person may also be signed on the forehead with the cross, as was done at baptism.

Holy Mary, pray for me.
St. Joseph, pray for me.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony.


The following prayer may be recited immediately after death and may be repeated in the hours that follow:

V. Eternal rest grant unto him (her), O Lord.
R. And let perpetual light shine upon him (her).
V. May he (she) rest in peace.
R. Amen.
V. May his (her) soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
R. Amen.



O God, by whose mercy the faithful departed find rest, send your holy Angel to watch over this grave.
Through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.


More prayers

At www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/bereavement-and-funerals/prayers-for-death-and-dying.cfm: See more prayers and Scripture readings for the dying and for the dead
At www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/prayers: Find more prayers, including a prayer to St. Joseph for a holy death