November 6, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

Praying for the dead affirms our belief in life everlasting

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thes 4:13-14).

Just four days ago, on Nov. 2, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day), we prayed for all who have died.

Catholics have always believed in the importance of praying for the dead. We also believe that the dead pray for us—that they intercede for us as advocates before the throne of God.

This means, of course, that we believe there is a real relationship that continues to exist between the living and the dead. And like all personal relationships, we believe that our connection (communion) with those who have died is nourished and strengthened by personal, and sometimes intimate, communication.

As Christians, we do not believe in false or superficial forms of communication with the dead (séances or voodoo or other forms of superstition). We communicate with those who have died through our prayer.

Many years ago, when he was a professor of theology, Joseph Ratzinger (now retired Pope Benedict XVI) wrote a series of scholarly reflections on death and eternal life. In one of these, he wrote: “The possibility of helping and giving does not cease to exist on the death of the Christian. Rather does it stretch out to encompass the entire communion of saints, on both sides of death’s portals.”

If we take this seriously, it means that we have a duty to pray for those who have died.

Prayer is always directed to God, but we Christians believe that Mary and all the saints can assist us in our communication with our heavenly Father. They intercede for us, whether we ask them to or not, but they also pray with us. That means they accompany us on our individual spiritual journeys, and if we let them, they can and do communicate with us along the way.

Praying with the people we love who have died doesn’t require a lot of words. In fact, prayer is more about listening than about talking.

When we pray, we place ourselves in God’s hands. We open our hearts to him. We listen for his word, and we seek to do his will.

Praying with Mary and the saints (and all who have died) is no different. It’s about being open and receptive to what God has to say to us through them. And it means sharing our deepest hopes and fears, our joys and our sorrows, our frustrations in daily living, and our desire to be better persons and to grow in holiness as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Pope St. John Paul II once said that “contemplation of the lives of those who have followed Christ encourages us to lead a good, upright Christian life so that we can prepare ourselves each day for eternal life.”

By keeping in touch with deceased loved ones, especially with the people Pope Francis calls “next door saints,” we participate actively in the communion of saints, which includes all those whose lives reflect their yearning for the joy of heaven.

When we talk to people who have  died, we’re not “losing it” or trying to escape from reality. We believe that death is not the end of life or the dissolution of our individual personalities. We take our cue from the accounts of the risen Jesus in the New Testament.

The evangelists were very clear in their depictions of the Lord after his death and resurrection. He was not exactly the same, they tell us. He appeared and disappeared. He passed through locked doors. And even his closest friends and disciples failed to recognize him at times.

But the risen Jesus was not a ghost. He was real. He offered to let Thomas touch his wounds. He cooked and ate breakfast. Most importantly, he communicated with the Apostles, encouraging (and challenging) them to be faithful to their calling as his missionary disciples.

The Lord has promised that those who are faithful will enjoy everlasting happiness with God and all the saints. He is true to his promise, and he urges us to stay close to all the faithful departed through our prayers. We remain close to those who have gone before us in a special way through the particular communion we share with them at the altar when we are celebrating Mass. 

May the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. And may they pray for us always, as we promise to pray for them, until we are all united with Christ in our heavenly home on the Last Day. †

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