Pray for the Living and the Dead – A Meditation on the Seventh Spiritual Work of Mercy

Spiritual Works of Mercy - Pray for the Living and the DeadWhat is the value of one prayer? I suspect it is far greater than any of us imagine. Prayer changes things, sometimes in obvious ways, more often in subtle and even paradoxical ways. But prayer is surely important, even when we don’t experience its immediate effects. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to pray always and never to lose heart (cf Luke 18:1). St. Paul echoed this with the simple exhortation “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). St. James also warned, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).

Perhaps one of the greatest joys of Heaven will be seeing how much of a difference our prayers made, even the distracted and perfunctory ones. Perhaps our simple utterance at the end of a decade of the rosary to “save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven” will reach the heart of one lost soul, prompting him to answer the gentle call of God to return. Imagine that in Heaven that very sinner comes up to you and says, “Though we never met, your prayer reached me and God applied His power to me.” Imagine the joy of many such meetings in Heaven. Imagine, too, whom you will joyfully thank for their prayers, people you know and some you never met. But they prayed and the power of their prayers reached you.

So, to pray for the living is a great and wondrous spiritual work of mercy; its value is beyond gold or pearls. Yes, what is the value of one prayer? The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in in its effects (James 5:16). Prayer can avert war, bring healing, cause conversion, bestow peace and serenity, and call down mercy—sweet, necessary, and beautiful mercy. Prayer is inestimable; its value can never be told.

Praying for the dead, however, is a spiritual work of mercy that has suffered in recent decades. Too many Catholics today “miss a step” when loved ones die. There are often immediate declarations that the deceased are “in Heaven” or are “in a better place.” But Scripture doesn’t say that we go right to Heaven when we die. No, indeed, there is a brief stopover at the judgment seat of Christ.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb 9:27). And St. Paul writes, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).

So, our deceased loved ones go to the judgment seat of Christ. And that is worth praying about!

But what is the judgment in question for those who lived faithful lives? In such cases, the judgment is not merely about the ultimate destination of Heaven or Hell. The judgment in question would seem to be “Is My work in you complete?”

Indeed, the Lord has made all of us a promise: You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). Such a beautiful promise! And yet most of us know that we are not in such a state now; if we were to die today it is clear that much work would still be required. And thus when we send our faithful loved ones to judgment, though we send them with hope, we are aware that finishing work may be necessary. Purgation and purification are necessary before entering Heaven, of which scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27).

Again, this is worth praying about. It is a great work of mercy we can extend to our deceased loved ones, to remember them with love and to pray, in the words of St. Paul, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Pray often for the souls in Purgatory. Surely there are joys there for them, knowing that they are on their way to Heaven. But surely, too, there are sufferings that purgation must cause. St Paul says of Purgatory, Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:13-15). Yes, there is fire, but thank God it is a healing fire. There are tears, too, for Scripture says (regarding the dead) that Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4).

How consoling and merciful our prayers must seem to our beloved who have died! How prayers must seem like a gentle wind that speeds them along, onward and upward toward Heaven!

Praying for the dead, then, is the last and greatest spiritual work of mercy. For by the grace of it, and through its help, souls attain the glory God has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

13 Replies to “Pray for the Living and the Dead – A Meditation on the Seventh Spiritual Work of Mercy”

  1. I always think of Bruce Almighty, when Jim Carrey played God, when I see posts on prayer (how he tried to organize all of the prayers coming to him – post-its, e-mail, etc). Always love your posts! The power of prayer… 🙂

      1. Whenever I think of that movie, I remember that line “How can you make someone love you without affecting their free will?” and God responds “Welcome to my world”.

        I don’t think truer words were ever spoken in a movie.

  2. I remember when I was growing up our parish used to have a purgatorial society that would offer masses for the deceased members of our parish. It no longer does that, unfortunately. Do any other parishes have purgatorial societies where masses are regularly offered for deceased members? I think having masses for deceased family members, friends, etc. is a beautiful way to participate in this spiritual work of mercy.

    1. In my own parish we had a sort of one-person purgatorial society. One of my staff members Betty Hamer was forever calling families on or near the anniversaries of the death of loved ones and encouraging and scheduling masses. Now that she has retired, Mass intentions have fallen dramatically. I have reminded people “from the pulpit” and in bulletin announcements, but there is little to replace what you are describing: dedicated souls who actively encourage and help people schedule masses.

      1. I do have a source that helps folks to remember to have masses prayed for deceased loved ones. It is named Friends of Suffering Souls, and the website is In order to participate, you enroll either yourself, family members, etc, and the only commitment is to have a mass prayed for all members of FOSS at least once a year. You can have the masses said at any Church you wish, but they do provide resources to help with this if needed. They send you an email about a month prior to the yearly due date, so you don’t have to remember on your own to have the mass said. Once you have arranged your mass, you reply to their email confirming that the mass is arranged. As of this date, according to their website, over 330,000 masses for the members of FOSS have been offered. I can’t help but believe that this apostolate has helped numerous souls in purgatory.

  3. Thank you for this blog post. This teaching is something people really do not understand these days in my experience. I wish more priests would speak of it. This is particularly telling when people have a Mass said for a deceased person. I’ve heard such things afterwards as “They didn’t even say anything about my grandmother!” as if it was supposed to be some sort of tribute celebration. On the same thought that it is some sort of personal memorial, some think they have to go to THAT particular Mass to show Johnny they loved him. (Of course it is good to go to Mass, any Mass, but it is not necessary to haul yourself twenty-five miles to do so).

  4. Thank you, Monsignor, for this post. Intellectually, we know we should pray always, and yet we allow ourselves to become distracted by unimportant things. Because of this post, I am going to get on the phone to request that Masses be offered for my deceased family members and friends. Thank you, too, for the reminder that we will all face The Judgment, and therefore need to live our lives more intentionally.

    An aside here: My favorite missionary and one of my favorite Christian writers/speakers, Elizabeth Elliot died yesterday. Her brother is Catholic apologist Thomas Howard. She needs our prayers. I actually cried when I read her obituary in Christianity Today, because I realized that I lost my first and greatest spiritual mother (Not counting Our Blessed Mother, of course). I realized as I was reading your post that you have become a spiritual father for me. I am grateful for your writings – they make a difference in my daily walk. Thank you!!!

  5. 2 Maccabees 12:39-46 “39 Next day, with Judas at their head, they went back to recover the bodies of the slain, for burial among their own folk in their fathers’ graves; 40 and what found they? Each of the fallen was wearing, under his shirt, some token carried away from the false gods of Jamnia. Here was defiance of the Jewish law, and none doubted it was the cause of their undoing; 41 none but praised the Lord for his just retribution, that had brought hidden things to light; 42 and so they fell to prayer, pleading that the sin might go unremembered. Judas himself, their gallant commander, gave public warning to his men, of fault they should evermore keep clear, with the fate of these transgressors under their eyes. 43 Then he would have contribution made; a sum of twelve thousand silver pieces he levied, and sent it to Jerusalem, to have sacrifice made there for the guilt of their dead companions. Was not this well done and piously? Here was a man kept the resurrection ever in mind; 44 he had done fondly and foolishly indeed, to pray for the dead, if these might rise no more, that once were fallen! 45 And these had made a godly end; could he doubt, a rich recompense awaited them? 46 A holy and wholesome thought it is to pray for the dead, for their guilt’s undoing.”
    “On the contrary, Augustine says in a sermon (xli De Sanctis): “This fire of Purgatory will be more severe than any pain that can be felt, seen or conceived in this world.”

    Further, the more universal a pain is the greater it is. Now the whole separate soul is punished, since it is simple: which is not the case with the body. Therefore this, being the punishment of the separate soul, is greater than any pain suffered by the body.

    I answer that, In Purgatory there will be a twofold pain; one will be the pain of loss, namely the delay of the divine vision, and the pain of sense, namely punishment by corporeal fire. With regard to both the least pain of Purgatory surpasses the greatest pain of this life. For the more a thing is desired the more painful is its absence. And since after this life the holy souls desire the Sovereign Good with the most intense longing–both because their longing is not held back by the weight of the body, and because, had there been no obstacle, they would already have gained the goal of enjoying the Sovereign Good–it follows that they grieve exceedingly for their delay. Again, since pain is not hurt, but the sense of hurt, the more sensitive a thing is, the greater the pain caused by that which hurts it: wherefore hurts inflicted on the more sensible parts cause the greatest pain. And, because all bodily sensation is from the soul, it follows of necessity that the soul feels the greatest pain when a hurt is inflicted on the soul itself. That the soul suffers pain from the bodily fire is at present taken for granted, for we shall treat of this matter further on [Cf. Supplement, 70, 3]. Therefore it follows that the pain of Purgatory, both of loss and of sense, surpasses all the pains of this life.”–St. Thomas Aquinas from Summa Theologica > Supplement (Appendix I) > Question 2 > Article 1.

  6. Thanks, Msgr. Catholics know so little about Purgatory today because it is so rarely preached about. Imagine dying 30 years after your parents did and finding out that they are still in Purgatory because you hoped or assumed that they were in heaven all that time. It’s sad, especially when you consider the extent to which these souls are suffering. The most important thing for us to remember about the Holy Souls is that they are very limited in what they can do for themselves. We (the Church Militant) are able to help these souls far more than they can help themselves and they look to us for Masses and prayers to expedite their departure from there. When someone is physically suffering down here, we do everything in our power to minimize the pain and alleviate their suffering. Today, however, we largely ignore all of the pain that is endured by the Church Suffering. Very sad…

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