It might finally be fall, but it is not Halloween yet—or All Soul’s Day for that matter. As it turns out, the Church has not reserved prayers for the dead only to the spooky times of the year. If you are going to understand why we pray for the dead, you will have to understand why we pray at all. Thankfully prayer is not the sort of thing you have to fully comprehend before starting to pray, so let us outline a basic understanding of why prayer matters.
A central truth of the Church is that it is a community of believers, Christians call this the Communion of Saints. The idea is that we are all members of the Body of Christ and we work together toward the same goal, namely the Kingdom of God. This faith leads us to believe in a world beyond this one. Interestingly, faith is only useful when you cannot prove something and we certainly cannot prove that there is a next world.
By virtue of being a member of the Church, every Christian is seeking the fulfillment of the Beatific Vision in Heaven. In this community, we pray for those who are nearer to this vision than we ourselves are. As the Catechism explains, “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (CCC, 1032). Since we consider every Christian to be part of the living Body of Christ, we believe that those who have died are nearer to the goal of participation in the Heavenly life. And if we pray for them to arrive there, we too are inching a little closer. It is a great communal effort toward individual fulfillment by means of shared fulfillment.
In a beautiful description of our prayers for the dead, St. Simeon of Thessalonica says, “[W]e sing for his departure from this life and separation from us, but also because there is a communion and a reunion. For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we all run the same course and we will find one another again in the same place. We shall never be separated, for we live for Christ, and now we are united with Christ as we go toward him . . . we shall all be together in Christ.”
By praying for the dead, we are participating not only in this life but also in the next, which is the goal of the Christian life.
The Catechism points out three especially important reasons to pray for the dead.
First, a funeral is part of the Liturgy. Liturgical prayer is important because it is the prayer of the entire Church by which we participate in the life of the Heavenly Liturgy. Second, we pray for the dead in order to remember their membership in the Communion of Saints. Finally, by it we profess our belief in eternal life.
The liturgy of the Church invites us to transcend death in this mystery of the Christian communion. This is where I should note that Christians should not pray exclusively for other Christians. Since we are members of the community of humankind and all human beings are called to fulfillment, we have a duty to pray for everyone’s fulfillment after death. As Christians, our lives can never exist independently of anyone else’s and the deceased are no exception.