In a previous post, the supreme importance of avoiding personally canonizing those who have died was highlighted. The “holy souls” in Purgatory depend greatly upon our prayers in order that they may be loosed from the lingering effects of their sins after their death. Many of us grasp this and, out of charity, regularly offer prayers for the dead. But there is a flip side to this coin—nearly every saint who has been canonized in the last two centuries was recognized because people began asking for their intercession. In other words, rather than primarily praying for them, people began praying to them. It seems that we must then exercise judgment as to whether the person is in Purgatory or in Heaven, the very thing I said not to do. Stuck in a spiritual no-man’s land, we tend towards neither praying for them or to them. The problem becomes theological rather than governed by the logic of love. The rich relationship of the Communion of Saints becomes a sterile doctrine and our personal faith falters with it. All of this seems unavoidable unless we can find a way around this spiritual dilemma.
A single paragraph in the Catechism, quoting an indulged prayer from Pope Leo XIII, helps part the clouds of obscurity. The Catechism says:
“In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.’ Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” (CCC 959, emphasis added).
In summary, it is our prayers for the dead that not only help them, but also make their intercession for us effective. What this tells us is that the holy souls in Purgatory, as members of the Church, have the power to intercede for the members of the Church Militant. But this power comes in some way through our prayers for them. How this works is obviously a mystery, but that it works is immediately relevant to the discussion at hand. It gives us an immediate plan of action that will enable us to do both—pray for them and pray for their intercession.
Covering Our Bases
For some of us, this still has a Russian roulette type feel to it—like we are simply trying to cover our bases. This only serves to make it more mechanical and less personal, the very antithesis of what prayer should be. But this stems from a certain anxiety that our prayers may actually be wasted. After all, if the person is in heaven and you are praying for their release from Purgatory, then your prayers have been wasted.
All of our prayer draws its power from the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. In other words, our prayer is caught up in the Eternal Now of Our Lord’s act of redemption where time and eternity met. This means our prayer, although uttered in time, enters into the timelessness of God. God knows “when” you will pray and He can apply the merits of those prayers as He sees fit. More to the point, even if the soul of our departed loved one is in heaven, it is still your prayer here and now that got them there. They may have even received the graces you interceded for just now while they were still on the earth. Just as there are many natural causes that God uses to guide His providential plan, prayer too is a cause. But because of its supernatural power, it operates outside of the natural constraints of time.
The Power of Prayer Over Time
Once we grasp this hidden power of prayer, we can see that our prayer, even if the soul has left Purgatory, is never wasted. But it is still necessary because it is a power by which they have been or will be released. It is also empowers them to intercede for the members of the Church Militant so that we should confidently ask for their intercession in our needs as well. So our prayers for and to the dead are no different than they were while they were still living—praying both for them and asking them to pray for us. Because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail” (James 5:16), we should go to them with confidence for our needs. This also carries with it a rich experience of the true nature of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. It is a supernatural reality that spans Heaven and Earth and in between (Purgatory).
As long as we are speaking of covering our bases, how do we explain the prayers for the dead who are actually in hell? Aren’t these wasted? By now the answer ought to be clear that God wastes none of our prayers. Our prayers obviously cannot lift them out of hell, but they could be applied to the person prior to their death. They may lead the person towards conversion prior to their death (there is a beautiful account of the conversion of a despairing soul on the door of death who receives a final grace in St. Faustina’s Dairy #1486). Or, perhaps it “only” kept them from further sin and, in a sense, lightened their suffering in hell. Not knowing anyone’s destiny, we should confidently pray based on the overwhelming power of God’s mercy. By praying, we become instruments of that same mercy.