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August 11, 2011
Praying for those who have died is a spiritual work of mercy
By Arcbishop Robert J. Carlson *

By Arcbishop Robert J. Carlson *

Catholic Christians always have believed in the importance of praying for those who have died. We call this a spiritual work of mercy. We also believe that the dead pray for us — that they intercede for us as advocates. This means, of course, that we believe there is a real relationship that continues to exist between the living and the dead. And like all personal relationships, we believe that our connection (communion) with those who have died is nourished and strengthened by personal, and sometimes intimate, communication.

We have the ability to help those who have died. (That's what works of mercy are, acts of kindness or assistance or forgiveness.) And those who have died can, and do, help us through their intercessory prayers.

As Christians, we do not believe in false or superficial forms of communication with the dead (séances or voodoo or other forms of superstition). We communicate with those who have died through our prayer.

Do you believe in the power of prayer? Do you accept our Church's teaching that we can — and should — reach out to those who have gone before us in faith? And that the communion of saints includes both the living and the dead?

Many years ago, when he was a professor of theology, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote a series of scholarly reflections on death and eternal life. In one of these he writes: "The possibility of helping and giving does not cease to exist on the death of the Christian. Rather does it stretch out to encompass the entire communion of saints, on both sides of death's portals."

If we take this seriously, it means that we have a duty to pray for those who have died. Prayer is always directed to God, but we Christians believe that Mary and all the saints can assist us in our communication with our Heavenly Father. They intercede for us, whether we ask them to or not, but they also pray with us. That means they accompany us on our individual spiritual journeys, and if we let them, they can and do communicate with us along the way.

Praying with the people we love who have died doesn't require a lot of words. In fact, prayer is more about listening than about talking. When we pray, we place ourselves in God's hands. We open our hearts to Him. We listen for His word, and we seek to do His will. Praying with Mary and the saints (and all who have died) is no different. It's about being open and receptive to what God has to say to us through them. And it means sharing our deepest hopes and fears, our joys and our sorrows, our frustrations in daily living, and our desire to be better persons and to grow in holiness as disciples of Jesus Christ.

When I talk to family members and friends who have died, I tell them what is in my heart — my hopes, my fears and my frustrations. I thank them for the gifts of love and friendship they shared with me. I ask them to forgive me for any mistakes I made when they were still with us on earth. And I forgive them for any offenses they may have committed against me. Finally, I ask them to help me be a better man and to be a wise and humble bishop.

My conversations with family members and friends who have died take place in the context of prayer. I pray with and for them, and I believe that they pray with and for me.

May the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. And may they pray for us always as we promise to pray for them until we are all united with Christ on the Last Day in the place He has prepared for us.


Reprinted with permission from the St. Louis Review.

The Most Rev. Robert J. Carlson is Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
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