You Did It to Me: Pray for the Living and the Dead

PrayforLivingandDeadWelcome to the series “YOU DID IT TO ME” where we will be discussing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. This will be a twice a month series from March to September 2015. We hope you enjoy!

One of my favorite parts of being Catholic is that I have a spiritual relationship with all of God’s children. I love that no matter where believers in Christ may be–in heaven, finishing their perfection in purgatory, or still journey here on earth–we’re all connected to one another in spirit. It’s profoundly consoling to know that when I’m struggling in this broken world, I can look to my Christian siblings to pray for me , so that I’ll obtain extra graces that will help me persevere in faith.

But this kinship isn’t a one-way relationship; I’m called to pray for others, too. Praying for both the living and the dead is actually one of the lesser-known spiritual works of mercy.


In the past, our awareness of others’ troubles was limited to those in our immediate family or town. Now, social and mass media has made us aware of people around the world who could use extra grace. It can feel overwhelming to hear about so much suffering, so how can we meet our obligation to pray for others when we’re already stretched so thin? Here are a few ways:

Keep your word. When you see a prayer request online, only respond to the ones you can realistically follow through on; don’t just hit “Like” to make yourself look pious. I find it best to pray right then for the person, as I’m likely to forget if I put it off until later. The prayer can be a simple Hail Mary or Glory Be, or even just a “Lord, have mercy on him/her.” Jesus doesn’t need long, elaborate prayers to know what those souls most need. The important thing is to ask for His help in loving charity. 

Keep a list. Some situations merit ongoing prayers, like a person battling cancer or the fight to end abortion. In these cases, keep a small notebook next to the computer to jot down prayer needs, along with a few details to help you remember what to pray for. If you use a smartphone frequently, there are plenty of free prayer list apps that will help you keep a running list of people that need long-term prayer. I use the Mobile Kneel app, and go through my list at least once a week, removing people when I know their situation has improved. 

Call on our friends in high places. Don’t forget to call on the saints to pray for those of us still on the journey. As Catholics, we’re blessed with patron saints for just about every kind of cause or suffering. I could pray for my friend’s struggling marriage–or I can ask my good friend, St. Thomas More, to pray for that union. Why? Because St. Thomas More has two things I don’t: 1) Martyrdom for defending the sanctity of marriage (why he’s the patron of difficult marriages), and 2) Spiritual perfection. And since “The prayer of a righteous person has great power” (James 5:16), I know his prayers will be even more efficacious for my friend than mine will.

Leave the details up to God. Often, people ask us to pray for very specific things: their spouse to get the job he just interviewed for…her brother to heal quickly from surgery…their house loan to get approved. I’ve come to believe that the more specific our prayer requests, the more we’re likely to see God as a vending machine instead of a loving Father who can be trusted to do what’s best for us. 

More than anything else, we should want people to get to heaven. But maybe working for that employer would just reinforce her husband’s workaholism and hurt their family…maybe a lengthier recovery would humble her brother to seek the Lord…maybe God wants them in a different neighborhood so that different people can impact their lives. Jesus himself gave us the perfect model for how to pray when he said: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” It’s okay to echo our friends’ requests in prayer, but we should always finish our prayers with the trust and humility that Jesus taught us: “Lord, please help Susan and her husband to sell their home soon. But not our will, but Yours be done.” 


Most people, including non-Catholic Christians, agree that we should pray for the living. But few Christians (including many Catholics) understand that we’re also called to pray for the dead. That’s because few Christians today understand the reality or necessity of purgatory. 

Just so we’re clear: Purgatory is NOT a second chance for unrepentant sinners…you can’t die in serious sin and get a “do-over” in purgatory. To get to purgatory in the first place, you have to die in friendship with God. Purgatory actually isn’t so much a place but a process–it’s the process of being purified of all the self-love and sinfulness that wasn’t burned out of us before we died. It’s simply how we finish the process of becoming perfect that we began here on earth. We need this purification because without being perfect ourselves, we aren’t fit to be in the presence of our all-holy God. For those who want to better understand the historical, logical, and even Scriptural roots of purgatory, I refer you to this page by Catholic Answers, as well as my article series titled Purgatory 101
Purgatory is real and so are the souls suffering there. Here are some of the ways God has given us to assist the dead so they might more quickly see Our Lord face to face:
Have a Mass offered for them. Don’t flatter the dead! Catholic families have always had Masses offered for the repose of their loved one’s souls, but this has fallen out of favor in the past 50 years. I know it’s popular to believe that every person who is even remotely associated with Christ, no matter how sinfully they lived (and perhaps died), will be transported immediately to heaven upon their last breath. But this is simply not true. We falsely flatter our departed loved ones–and play into our own laziness–if we neglect to have Masses offered for people who die.
Give alms in their honor. St. Thomas Aquinas says that almsgiving is even more efficacious in helping the holy souls in purgatory than prayer and fasting, because almsgiving possesses more completely the virtue of satisfaction. We sacrifice something and offer it as amends for the earthly effect of the sins they must still atone for in heaven. (We don’t offer satisfaction for the eternal effects of their sins; only Christ can do that. More on that here.) This is perhaps why so many great servants of God chose almsgiving as the principle means by which they assisted the dead.
Obtain an indulgence for them. Historical abuses have given indulgences a bad name, but indulgences do still exist as a treasury of graces through Holy Mother Church. Instead of obtaining an indulgence for yourself, obtain one for a holy soul in purgatory. If you’re going to confession and Mass anyway, why not get a soul out of purgatory in the process?
Offer sacrifices for them. Every work of charity may be offered to God for the dead to satisfy the atonement they owe for the temporal effects of their sins. As Jesus said, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” So whenever I’m in pain or called to do something distasteful or difficult, I offer it to God as suffrage for the holy souls. 
The next time you feel insignificant, remember: God has given you the power to open the gates of heaven for souls. This is a privilege God has given only to the living; the saints in heaven, while they can assist us with their prayers, can no longer make satisfaction for others. They can’t suffer, or offer Masses, or give alms on their behalf. Only we get to do this for our brothers and sisters in purgatory.

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