“If one member suffers in the body of Christ which is the Church, all members suffer with that member.” 1 Corinthians 12:26.
Catholic teaching regarding praying for the dead is connected with scripture, tradition and the doctrine of the communion of saints, which is part of the Creed.
As Catholics, we believe those who have died are separated from us physically, though spiritually they remain connected to us. Death does not sever the bonds of communion. Catholic tradition holds that when a person dies; if they are in a state of grace – they will enter heaven; if they reject God; they enter hell; and if throughout their lives they showed by works of charity and/or profession of belief in God; though they are not be in a state of grace; they enter Purgatory.
The theology of Purgatory developed over the course of time. The Church understands that Jesus completes the work of God; and sees its role as now realizing that work. Over history, the Church refers to scripture, tradition and practice to discern its role. Through this process, Purgatory has come to be defined as the state of those who die in God’s friendship, but are need of purification; so as to achieve the necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church holds it is possible for people to assist those who have gone before us by way of prayer and works of charity.
Within the Catholic tradition then, this is the purpose behind the various forms of prayer for the dead. We ask God during these prayers foremost to be merciful to the deceased; to forgive them their sins, to welcome them into paradise and to comfort those in grief. It is worthy then for us to pray for these intentions. Our belief as Catholics, based on scripture is that Christ is not deaf to our prayers for our loved ones and all the deceased in that part of the Kingdom; referred to as Purgatory.
Catholic tradition to pray for the dead is found in Scripture and tradition where the living offer to God to graciously accept good works on behalf of the souls of the deceased to remit some part or all of the deceased’s atonement. This is referred to as obtaining an indulgence for the deceased.
The Catholic Church holds that by our bond with the deceased through the communion of saints; that we form a single reality between the living and deceased; similar to our supporting our fellow brothers and sisters in this world with prayer and acts of charity; our prayers and acts of charity can assist those who have gone before us. This is done by various examples from consoling the family; to assisting the family in the funeral preparation to partaking in various liturgies especially in the celebration of the Mass and praying for the dead. The tradition of the Funeral Mass arose when St. Augustine’s mother was dying and she told her sons, “Lay this body anywhere and do not let the care of it be a trouble to you… only this I ask: that you remember me at the Lord’s altar, wherever
Within Scripture, in the Old Testament; prayers for the dead are mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12:43-45. “When Judas and his men came to take away the bodies of their fallen brethren for burial, they found under the coats of the slain …idols of Jamnia which the Commandments forbid… so betaking themselves to prayer, they be sought God, that the sin which had been committed be forgotten… they offered sacrifice for the sins of the dead”. In the New Testament, in 2 Timothy 1:16-18, it reads as follows, “May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not afraid of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day!”
There is evidence from the early Church leaders of praying for the dead – Tertullian d230 mentions praying for the dead not as a concession to sentiment, but as a duty. St. Augustine, at the end of the ninth book of his Confessions prays for his deceased mother, Monica. Praying for the dead became part of the Eucharistic prayer liturgy in the early church also, often with the names of the deceased included in the Eucharist prayer.
This tradition of over 2000 years still continues in the Eucharistic prayer. Based on Scripture and tradition, the Roman Catholic Liturgy for the Dead has prayers for the deceased; prayers for those who left behind; prayers for all those who have died and prayers asking God to forgive sins throughout the Mass and other funeral liturgies. The Liturgy of the Word reminds the people of the Resurrection of the body and the Liturgy of the Eucharist is offered as the ultimate prayer for the soul of the deceased; following tradition upon the wish of St. Augustine’s mother, Monica.