Christian TraditionsEschatologyPrayerRoman CatholicSalvationTheology & Spirituality

Prayer for the Dead: Spooky or Saintly?

Souls, Death, and Things In-Between

Another Halloween has come and gone. If you are like me, then you probably see All Hallows’ Eve as a time to ponder humanity’s cross-cultural fascination with morbidity. Why do so many adorn their homes with images of the ghoulish and ghastly, from crisscrossing cobwebs to uncanny cauldrons filled with potent potions? Why do we watch scary movies, perk up our ears at stories of the paranormal, and attend (or at least consider attending) haunted houses? At their core, I believe that these behaviors can be traced back to a singular impulse: to connect the world of the living with the world of the dead. Halloween festivities mark a singular moment—a moment when society at large openly attempts to communicate with (or at least “nod to”) another realm. In a sense, this is exactly what Catholic and Orthodox Christians do every day, when we pray for the souls of the departed.1

Joseph Green has already written an excellent piece on prayer for the dead. I aim to add an additional layer to his historical and theological treatment by working with two texts: The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great and The Breviloquium of Saint Bonaventure.2 My piece will supply specific details about what prayer for the dead is—and what it is not—drawing from the tradition of the Western Church. But first, let’s discuss an important precursor to this conversation: What happens when we die?3 On this Feast of All Souls’ Day, I’d like to take a moment to reflect with you on the soul, that sometimes forgotten entity that animates our existence.

What Happens When We Die?

The modern view of what happens directly after death is quite different from views held in the past. In the Early and Medieval Church, practices like prayer to saints and prayer for the dead made sense because of people’s beliefs about the transition from this world to the next.

Moderns are skeptical when it comes hard and fast claims about the soul—the part of us that is not tied to the body and that survives our death here in this world. In fact, reflection on the soul and its constitution has gone out of style in many Christian circles. Perhaps it is seen as too extraneous to the Gospel, too antiquated, or just too plain complicated! I’ll admit, it blew my mind when I started to think, for the first time, about Christ’s human soul. Was it created, or did it always exist? Was it of a different kind than the souls of everyone else? When I look back on my Christian formation, I realize that I tacitly assumed Christ did not have a soul like mine. I was an incipient Apollinarian. I believed that the Divine part of Christ was the immortal part, and that the Human part was His perishable body. In reality, both we and Christ have an immortal part—the soul—that will survive this life and travel on immediately to the next life.

The soul’s journey to God was once viewed as a complex and multifaceted progression through various stages of life and afterlife. Dante’s Commedia is a perfect example. This work is in many ways the pinnacle of Western reflection on the afterlife—it summarizes views commonly held across centuries and incorporates the advanced theological synthesis of the Scholastics. The result is a beautiful and life-changing story, a story that opens up the cosmos to reveal the guiding hand of God. God’s plan for humanity operates in a mode beyond anything we can comprehend in our current space-and-time existence. Modern men, bitten by the materialist bug, have eliminated both the soul and its God; or, in a mollified stance, have reduced the soul’s journey to a simple and immediate transport to her final destination. Such pervasive biases make it difficult to dig in and discuss the “after death” question in the world today.

For example, last year I was trying to explain why Catholics seek the prayers of dead saints. My interlocutor responded nervously, “Ben, those people can’t pray for you . . . they’re dead.” I replied, “No, they are alive in Christ!” As Christians, we cannot believe that life ends with death. A person does not cease to be who they are when they die. If the departed person is a Christian, he or she remains united to the Mystical Body of Christ, which is one and unbroken across time and space. Christians who no longer exist physically on this earth are no less a part of the mystery of salvation—in fact, their words and actions can affect our own journeys of faith in magnificent ways—just look at how many people read the writings of the saints! As Rowan Williams argues in Why Study the Past, we owe our very existence as Christians to the diverse callings of men and women who built up the Body of Christ and passed down Christian life to the next generations.4

Protestants push back against many of the points made above, sometimes citing passages like Hebrews 9:26–28 and 1 Corinthians 15:52 (read the reasoning behind this once you reach footnote five, below). By way of contrast, The Catholic Church, drawing from both Tradition and Scripture, uses the terms “particular judgment” and “final judgment” when speaking of the soul’s end journey to God. Particular judgment happens to each soul at the moment of death; final judgment happens to all people when Christ returns. The separation between these two judgments creates the space for prayers to/for the dead.5 A clear example of this space between death and the final judgment is the story of Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16:19–31). For a cogent overview of these terms, and other basics of Catholic doctrine on the afterlife, please take a look at the Catholic Catechism Part One, Section Two, Chapter Three, Article Twelve.

Prayer for the Dead: What it Does, What it Does Not

1) Gregory the Great

Let’s move on to what I promised would be the main topic of this article. Prayer for the departed occurs daily in churches and homes around the world. One of the first places that this practice was described in detail (within Catholic tradition) is The Dialogues of Gregory the Great. Here, we learn that prayer for the dead ushers souls from purgatory into paradise (Book 1.12, Book 2.23).6 Two stories help clarify what Gregory means. In the first, we meet Deacon Paschasius. He was a righteous man who “through his previous almsdeeds had obtained the grace of receiving forgiveness” (Book 4.42). Unfortunately, his soul needed purification after death due to an earlier sin of ignorance—Paschasius had embraced a schismatic instead of the true Bishop of Rome. Deacon Paschasius’ soul was lifted from purgatory after his death due to the prayers of a man named Germanus. These prayers were effective because of the lifetime works/actions of Paschasius, not because of Germanus’ will. This story is an example of the communication of spiritual gifts in and through the Body of Christ. It is similar to the point raised above from Rowan Williams, except that the gift moves from earth to the afterlife instead of the other way around. An example of the opposite movement would be the prayers of saints to God having a positive impact on earthly lives. Returning to Gregory, in a second story we find the principle of communicating spiritual gifts within the Body of Christ expressed through a negative example. A “dissolute” person named Valentine was buried in a church (and thus implicitly prayed for by the Church as one of its Members). That very night, the body of Valentine was ripped from its tomb and re-buried by demons in another grave. The prayers of the faithful for this dead man could not avail his soul, due to his rejection of God through mortal sin. As a small caveat, please note that both of these stories from Gregory rest on a Catholic understanding of the relationship between faith and works, which I have explored in detail elsewhere.7

2) Bonaventure

Gregory’s work, while beautiful and evocative, is not a complete theological treatment of prayer for the dead. Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, on the other hand, was written as a manual for Catholic preachers. Here we find the doctrine that prayers for the dead cannot change the fate of the dead. For Catholics, eternal condemnation occurs only if a person dies in mortal sin. Rejecting God to the very last moment of earthly life, those who die in mortal sin reveal the desire of their wills to be perpetually oriented toward sin. They have made their choice—to separate themselves from God—and prayer cannot help them. As Bonaventure states, those who die rejecting God “are thoroughly separated from the mystical Body of Christ” (sunt a corpore Christi mystic penitus separati) (Breviloquium 7.3.4).

On the other hand, those who do not die in mortal sin can be prayed for or prayed to. Given our fallible and time-bound position, it is appropriate for us to pray for the souls of all the faithful departed, and even for the souls of our enemies (I wrote a piece on this topic here). In addition, Catholics pray to saints because the Church has confirmed that their souls are already in full communion with God, enjoying the light and life of God’s face. Thus, we can ask them to intercede for us just like we would ask a living relative here and now.

We must also discuss purgatory, but briefly due to my upcoming article on the matter. Many Christians who do not die in mortal sin will be sent to purgatory. Sins they committed while on this earth continue to affect others negatively, and punishment is due for those sins. According to Bonaventure, the prayers of the living can affect souls in purgatory “by reason of the sweetness of mercy” (ratione suavitatis misericordiae) (Breviloquium 7.3.2). These prayers of the faithful for the dead allow those experiencing purgation to be encouraged and to better grasp their position.9 These prayers are expressed primarily through the offering of Eucharist.9 Bonaventure also mentions fasts and almsgiving in the same category. While not specific about what happens, Bonaventure teaches that these earthly offerings can be understood in terms of redeeming payments (pretiis redemptivis) that have an effect on the status of particular souls in purgatory. Hence, prayers for the dead do not “save” them, but they do contribute to the expiation of their sin. In all of this, he is exactly in line with Gregory—yet speaking in Scholastic propositions rather than evocative stories.

To sum up: we don’t need Halloween to help us create or celebrate a point of union between the living and the dead. We already have the Body of Christ. The commutation of spiritual gifts across this Body does not mean that human beings are the cause of salvation. Rather, we are co-workers with God in a vast, universal field of souls nearing the time of harvest.


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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is adjunct professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. Ben’s life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. His interests outside the Academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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