Catechism Series on the Basics of the Catholic Faith

Traditional Catholic Devotions for the Dead

Catholic Apologetics #26

The Importance of Praying for the Dead

It has been and always will be a pious and holy practice to pray for the repose of the souls who have passed on to the next life. However, in the past few decades, saying prayers for the blessed repose of the souls in Purgatory has fallen into almost complete disuse. Such a lack of charity for their souls is an atrocity. For generations, Catholics would pray for the souls of the faithful who have gone before them in the sleep of death.

You, as a member of the Catholic Church on earth (i.e. the Church Militant), have a solemn duty to pray for souls in Purgatory (i.e. the Church Suffering). This pious practice is one of the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy. As stated in the holy book of Maccabees: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46). Among the Church Fathers, St. Epiphanius (+403 A.D.) testifies that praying for the dead is a duty imposed by tradition and St. Chrysostom (+407 A.D.) actually calls it a “law laid down by the Apostles.” In 230 A.D., Tertullian wrote, “The widow who does not pray for her dead husband has as good as divorced him.”

While the entire month of November is devoted in a special way to praying for the dead, praying for the faithful departed should not only be done in the month of November or on the day of our loved one’s burial. We should not be thinking “They are in Heaven” – what a dangerous lack of charity to your departed relatives, friends, and ancestors! The souls in Purgatory need our prayers as they are unable to pray for themselves. One should never believe that many people are immediately saved since most do go to Hell and the vast majority of the few who are saved must first suffer through the fires of Purgatory (c.f. Hell: The Dogma of Hell, Illustrated by Facts Taken from Profane and Sacred History by F. X. Schouppe, SJ).  Few – very few – souls go straight to Heaven.

[Editor’s note: Arguably the greatest preacher of the 18th century, St. Leonard of Port Maurice, addressed this matter in what has since become a renowned sermon titled The Fewness of the Saved. Catholics would do well to be familiar with this sermon.]

Requiescat in Pace (R.I.P.)

Unfortunately, the sacred in many ways has become too common and ordinary so that we fail – when encountering holy things – to stand in the awe appropriate for the situation. In much the same manner, we have become accustomed to the three letters R.I.P. on the headstones of those who have died. Few of us adequately understand the liturgical connection of these three simple letters to the Mass said for the repose of their souls.

The expression R.I.P., despite modern understandings, does not stand for “rest in peace” but instead represents the Latin phrase “requiescat in pace”, whose English equivalent is coincidentally “rest in peace”. These three letters were not formerly placed on the tombstones of all of the departed or even all “Christians” but only on the tombstones of Catholics. The phrase “requiescat in pace” is taken from the final prayers of the priest at the place of burial: Anima eius et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum per Dei misericordiam requiescant in pace, whose English equivalent is May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

The letters R.I.P. first appeared in the 8th century although it did not become common on the tombstones of Catholics until the 18th century. The Roman catacombs bear witness to prayers for the dead since many such prayers are preserved on the tombs of the departed (e.g. “Mayst thou live among the saints,” 3rd century). The phrase refers not to our wish for their bodies to live peacefully in the ground but rather it is our prayer that their souls may be forgiven by Christ the Judge and found worthy – after the necessary purification – to enter into heavenly beatitude. Namely, we pray that the souls of the departed shall one day be worthy for beatitude – to behold the face of God in Heaven.

Consequently, it should be viewed as a pious and humble practice to frequently visit the cemeteries and pray for the dead. And surely, when you see the letters R.I.P. you should pray for the salvation of the departed. Recall that our prayers are outside of time, so do not fail in this pious duty by assuming that you are “too late.” Rather, your prayers offered in a humble and contrite spirit may satisfy the remaining temporal punishment due for the departed’s sins (c.f. Mt. 5:48, Mt. 5:26, Mt. 12:32, 1 Cor. 15:29, 1 Tim. 1:16).

Special Prayers for the Dead on the 3rd, 7th, and 30th Day after Burial

Unfortunately, the custom of praying for the dead on the 3rd, 7th, and 30th day after burial has also fallen by the wayside in the past few generations.

Traditionally, special prayers are offered in the Breviary on the 3rd day after the burial in commemoration of the three days our Blessed Lord spent in the tomb. There is a special prescription in the Apostolic Constitutions regarding this: “With respect to the dead, let the third day be celebrated in psalms, lessons, and prayers, because of Him Who on the third day rose again.”

Why is the 7th day commemorated in a special manner? This too is an ancient observance. Regarding the seventh day, we have the testimony of St. Ambrose who bears witness to what was even then an ancient practice: “Now, since the seventh day is symbolical of eternal repose, we return to the tomb.”

We should pray for the repose of the souls of our friends and relatives on the day of death, the day of burial, the 3rd day after burial, the 7th day after burial, the 30th day after burial, and on the anniversary of death/burial. On such dates, we should have recourse to praying the Office of the Dead as well as the Rosary for the departed.

Annual Commemoration of the Dead on All Souls’ Day

The feast of All Souls, which occurs on November 2nd, dates to the 11th century. And this annual observation is a special time to remember all of the faithful departed and to pray that they are now in the presence of God. In the middle of the 11th century, St. Odilo, the Benedictine abbot of Cluny, said that all Cluniac monasteries were to offer special prayers and sing the Office for the Dead on November 2, the day after the feast of All Saints. The custom spread from Cluny and was adopted throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church. Now the entire Church celebrates November 2nd as All Souls’ Day.

During the First World War, Pope Benedict XV, on August 10, 1915, granted permission for all priests everywhere to say three Masses on All Souls’ Day. The two extra Masses were in no way to benefit the priest himself: one was to be offered for all the faithful departed, the other for the Pope’s intentions, which at that time were presumed to be for all the victims of that war. The permission remains.

If we truly take the salvation of souls seriously, how do we observe All Souls’ Day and the entire month of November?

Daily Prayer and Penance for the Poor Souls

We should pray fervently and frequently for the souls in Purgatory. Why not start by adding the St. Gertrude Prayer to your daily prayers:

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal Church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.

This prayer is reputed to be very powerful in helping release souls from Purgatory.

Additionally, the faithful should be encouraged to ask the clergy to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with the intention of freeing the souls in Purgatory. Many souls are released from Purgatory by the graces from the Mass. Likewise, the souls in Purgatory are greatly aided when we offer our Holy Communions for them. Make it a practice to offer your Holy Communion at least once weekly for the souls in Purgatory.

Lastly, what daily indulgences can you gain for the Poor Souls? There are many indulgenced prayers – including the Stations of the Cross and the Rosary – which may be offered to Almighty God for the repose of the souls in Purgatory, and in a particular way, for the repose of the souls of our family members, friends, and benefactors. You might also consider acquiring a copy of The Raccolta, the Church’s book of indulgenced prayers. It contains numerous prayers that may be said on behalf of the faithful departed (Nos. 582-600), including the memorable Dies iræ sequence, which certainly dates back to the 13th century, but may even go back to St. Gregory the Great.

Similarly, through almsgiving, penance, and fasting done with the intention of freeing souls in Purgatory, we can directly help the souls in the Church Suffering. And these souls, when freed from their purgation, shall certainly pray without ceasing for our salvation.


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