Masses of Mercy: Why We Offer Prayers for the Dead

Masses of Mercy: Why We Offer Prayers for the Dead

The Church is a good mother who provides a number of ways to help ensure prayers for the dearly departed.


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Parishioner Ray Nullman at Prince of Peace Church in Taylors, South Carolina, has several Masses offered during the year for loved ones and friends who have died. He also schedules Masses beyond the current year, always trying to have Masses on special anniversaries and other times he can attend.

“I always try to get my wife, Carol, in on Palm Sunday,” Nullman said, explaining that she died nearly 14 years ago. He gives stipends to have Masses said for the repose of the souls of his sisters and also “neighbors from a long time ago, when we were in Long Island. There was a closeness there.”

“We give any help we can give them now,” he said. “[Then] maybe we will need their help.”

November may be the month dedicated to remembering the souls of those who have died — All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1 celebrates those who are indisputably in heaven, while the next day, All Souls’ Day, the Church prominently prays for those who are still traveling there via purgatory — but praying for the departed and having Masses said for them is an all-year obligation.

Like Nullman, family and friends often have Masses said for the repose of the departed they knew and loved.

The Church is a good mother who provides a number of ways to help ensure prayers for the dearly departed.

Mass Remembrances

In the Archdiocese of Detroit, the diocesan cemeteries Holy Sepulchre and Our Lady of Hope hold a monthly Mass in their chapels for all those buried there and in the associated cemeteries that do not have a monthly Mass.

But the Church remembers all of the faithful departed at every Mass.

“When we have the Prayers of the Faithful, we bring up the suffering souls in purgatory. In a way, they’re always remembered by the congregation, if not specifically by the family,” said Vincentian Father Michael Shea at the National Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Philadelphia.

In the Eucharistic Prayers, the priest prays, “Grant them, O Lord, we pray, and all who sleep in Christ, a place of refreshment, light and peace (I); remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection, and all who have died in your mercy: Welcome them into the light of your face (II); to our departed brothers and sisters and to all who were pleasing to you at their passing from this life, give kind admittance to your kingdom” (III).

Mercy for Loved Ones

One of the important spiritual works of mercy is praying for the living and the dead. So reminds Father Chris Alar of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception: “From the teaching of the Church, it’s extremely important we pray for the dead. We have a directive from the Church.”

Father Alar notes that Scripture gives evidence of praying for the dead, and doing so was evident in early Christianity and in Judaism.

These prayers are vital from the spiritual aspect of the communion of saints and the Mystical Body of Christ, pointed out Father Shea. “We’re not totally separated. We still have that spiritual interconnection with one another.”

“One part of the body can assist the other part of the body,” added Father Alar.

A visual picture can help us understand the spiritual need to help one another in the Mystical Body. Said Father Shea, “I hurt my foot, so my right hand helps my foot.”

A major way to help that “hurt” is to have Masses said for the repose of the souls of those we know.

Special Offerings

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (958) states, “Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.”

Father Alar observed, “One of the reasons it’s so charitable to pray for the dead is because the dead cannot help themselves. The founder of our congregation, St. Stanislaus Papczynski, said that the greatest act of charity is to pray for the souls in purgatory because they cannot pray for themselves.”

Offering Masses and saying prayers for the holy souls in purgatory has two-way benefits.

“When they do get to heaven, they pray for me and will help release my soul, as I did for them,” Father Alar explained. “That is guaranteed. That’s the beauty of the Mystical Body of Christ: The souls we help release today become our biggest advocates.”

In addition to single Masses offered, we can also enroll each person with one of the religious congregations’ spiritual benefit societies, which offer remembrances, especially in Masses.

Father Shea said the enrollment cards at the Miraculous Medal Shrine have clear designations, such as remembering the deceased person for a year, or five years, or even perpetually, in daily Masses. Often the spiritual benefits include remembrance in the daily prayers and good works of each member of the congregation. It is the same with the Association of Marian Helpers, where Father Alar serves as director.

Help Yourself Now and Later

The Church teaches it is not selfish to want prayers and Masses said for us when we die. Take St. Monica’s word for it. She told her son, St. Augustine: “Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you: that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”

We can make sure we won’t be forgotten in individual Masses and enrollments, too.

Recommended Father Shea, “Make a will and set aside money for that,” indicating that so many Masses should be said for you.

“If you want to be prayed for specifically, join a spiritual association,” suggested Father Alar. These groups, like the Association of Marian Helpers, offer many spiritual benefits. Anyone living or deceased may be enrolled in the association and receive the graces that normally include remembrances in daily Masses.

For the Marian Helpers enrollees, benefits include remembrance in a daily Mass celebrated for them, Mass offered for members on First Fridays and First Saturdays and for deceased members on All Souls’ Day, a special Mass on each feast of our Savior and his Blessed Mother, the daily Divine Mercy Chaplet at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and daily prayers of all the Marian priests and brothers praying for them, their families and loved ones. Plus, members pray for each other.

If you enroll yourself perpetually now while you’re living, what happens when you die? That enrollment would continue, said Father Alar. “None of the benefits stop when you die.”

We can add another level by depositing merits into the Church’s treasury of graces though our sacrifices and prayers, united to Christ and offered to God.

“It’s like this beautiful big bank account of grace, like a retirement plan,” explained Father Alar. “You put those graces in that treasury so that when you die you can receive the graces others have deposited.”

Yet another way of helping ourselves, as well as others later, is by having Masses offered now.

On its website, Prince of Peace Church informs all parishioners that St. Anselm, a doctor of the Church, declared a single Mass offered for yourself during life “may be worth more than a thousand celebrated for the same intention after your death. The merit of the Masses we have offered for ourselves during life will obtain for us a higher degree of glory in heaven, since we have made the meritorious sacrifice of offering the stipend for the Mass.”

The Church explains that the Masses offered during our life go before us and “may greatly shorten our purgatory. … Masses offered for us during our life can help us obtain the great grace of a happy and holy death,” as the Prince of Peace website explains.

What a beautiful gift!

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.

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Eyewitness Accounts of Encounters With Ghosts From Purgatory

Not only do saints appear to people occasionally — history also records visitations of those in purgatory.


Benjamin West, “Saul and the Witch of Endor” (1777)

Do Catholics believe in ghosts? Absolutely! Ghosts, defined as disembodied, human spirits (as opposed to angels), are one of the ways we know about purgatory (though it is also revealed by God). Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, coming out of the great thirteenth century, became one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages. You can think of it as an earlier version of Butler’s Lives of the Saints. We tend to think of a legend as something fictitious, but legendasimply meant something to be read. Some do accuse Voragine, however, of indulging in things we would consider legendary (which may have contributed to the modern meaning of the word).

In terms of Catholic ghosts, we recognize that we have contact with those in the Communion of Saints. Not only do saints appear to us occasionally, we also have visitations of those in purgatory. I have heard a few friends recount such experiences, especially in dreams. These encounters with souls in purgatory generally entail a request for prayers.

For the entry for All Souls Day in the Golden Legend, we see a long list of such encounters with the ghosts or spirits of purgatory. Below is a selection of them (though click on the link to volume six of the Golden Legend for the complete entry; I altered some of the language to make it more readable).

Overall, these stories should remind us that we are still connected to our friends and family who have died. We really can help them and should remember them every day in prayer and should have Masses said for them.

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Here follows the Commemoration of All Souls (found in volume 6)

The memory of the departing of all Christian souls is established to be solemnized in the church on this day, to the end that they may have general aid and comfort . . . as it is showed in the foresaid revelation.

And Peter Damian said that in Sicily, in the isle of Vulcan, S. Odille heard the voices and the howlings of devils, which complained strongly because the souls of the dead were taken away from their hands by alms and by prayers, and therefore he ordained that the feast and remembrance of them that be departed out of this world should be made and held in all monasteries the day after the feast of All Hallows, the which thing was approved after of all holy Church….

There was a master which was chancellor at Paris named Silo, which had a scholar sick, and he prayed him that after his death he should come again to him and say to him of his estate. And he promised him so to do, and after died. And a while after he appeared to him clad in a cope written full of arguments fallacious, and sophisms, and was of parchment, and within all full of flame of fire. And the chancellor demanded him what he was. And he told to him: I am such one that am come again to thee. And the chancellor demanded him of his estate, and he said: This cope weighs on me more than a mill-stone or a tower, and it is given me for to bear, for the glory that I had in my sophisms and sophistical arguments, that is to say, deceivable and fallacious. The skins be light, but the flame of fire within torments and burns me. And when the master judged the pain to be light, the dead scholar said to him, that he should put forth his hand and feel the lightness of his pain. And he put forth his hand, and that other let fall a drop of his sweat on it, and the drop pierced through his hand sooner than an arrow could be shot through, whereby he felt a marvelous torment. And the dead man said: I am all in such pain. And then the chancellor was all afraid of the cruel and terrible pain that he had felt, and concluded to forsake the world, and entered into religion with great devotion….

Sometimes souls are punished in the places where they have sinned, as appears by an example that S. Gregory recites in the fourth book of his Dialogues, and says that there was a priest which used gladly a bath, and when he came in to the bath he found a man whom he knew always ready to serve him. And it happened on a day, that for his diligent service and his reward, the priest gave to him a holy loaf. And he weeping, answered: Father, why do you give me this thing? I may not eat it for it is holy. I was sometime lord of this place, but after my death, I was deputed to serve here for my sins, but I pray thee that thou wilt offer this bread unto Almighty God for my sins, and know thou for certain that thy prayer shall be heard, and when then thou shalt come to wash, thou shalt not find me. And then this priest offered a week entire sacrifice to God for him, and when he came again he found him not….

As touching to that that the prayers of friends profit to them, it appears by example of Paschasius, of whom Gregory tells in the fourth book of his Dialogues, and says that there was a man of great holiness and virtue, and two were chosen for to have been popes, but nevertheless at the last the church accorded unto one of them, and this Paschasius always by error suffered [was bother by] that other, and abode in this error unto the death. And when he was dead the bier was covered with a cloth named a dalmatic, and one that was vexed with a devil was brought thither and touched the cloth, and immediately he was made whole. And a long time after, as S. Germain, bishop of Capua, went to wash him in a bath for his health, he found Paschasius deacon there. And when he saw him he was afraid, and enquired diligently what thing so great had placed so holy a man there. And he said to him that he was there for none other cause but for that he held and sustained more than was right in the cause aforesaid, and said: I require thee that thou pray our Lord for me. And know that thou shalt be heard, for when thou shalt come again, thou shalt not find me here. And then the bishop prayed for him, and when he came again he found him not.

And Peter, abbot of Cluny, says that there was a priest that sung every day a Requiem Mass for all Christian souls, and for this he was accused to the bishop, and was suspended therefore of his office. And as the bishop went on a day of great solemnity in the churchyard, all the dead arose up against him, saying: This bishop giveth to us no Mass, and yet he hath taken away our priest from us, now he shall be certain that unless he amends he shall die. And then the bishop absolved the priest, and sang himself gladly for them that were passed out of this world. And so it appears that the prayers of living people be profitable to them that be departed…..

It happened that a legate of the pope requested a noble knight, that he would make war in the service of the church and ride to the Albigensians, and he would therefore give pardon to his father which was dead. And the knight rode forth, and abode there a whole Lent, and that done his father appeared to him more clear than the day, and thanked him for his deliverance….

It is read that when a knight lay in his bed with his wife, and the moon shone right clear which entered in by the crevices, he marveled much why man who is reasonable obeyed not to his Maker, when the creatures not reasonable obeyed him. And then he began to speak evil of a knight which was dead, and had been familiar with him; and then this knight, to whom they so talked, entered into the chamber and said to him: Friend, have none evil suspicion of any man, but pardon me if I have trespassed to thee. And when he had demanded him of his state, he answered: I am tormented of diverse torments and pains, and especially because I defiled the churchyard and hurt a man therein, and despoiled him of his mantle which he wore, which mantle I bear on me and is heavier than a mountain. And then he prayed the knight that he would pray for him. And then he demanded if he would that such a priest should pray for him, or such one, and the dead man wagged his head, and answered not, as he would not have him. Then he asked of him if he would that such a hermit should pray for him, and then the dead man answered: Would God that he would pray for me. And the living knight promised that he should pray for him, and then the dead man said: And I say to thee that this day two years thou shalt die, and so vanished away. And this knight changed his life into better and at the day slept in our Lord.

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Readings & Reflections with Cardinal Tagle’s Video: The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls), November 2,2016

What is purgatory? Purgatory  is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter the happiness of heaven (CCC: 1030-1031, 1054).

How can we help the souls being purified in purgatory? Because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance (CCC: 1032).

In what does hell consist? Hell consists in the eternal damnation of those who die in mortal sin through their own free choice. The principal suffering of hell is eternal separation from God in whom alone we can have the life and happiness for which we were created and for which we long Christ proclaimed this reality with the words, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41; CCC: 1033-1035, 1056-1057).

Death does not put an end to life with loved ones in Christ. It actually enhances Life. “What is the Church if not the assembly of all the saints? The communion of saints is the Church” (CCC: 945). “Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness… They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus…. So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped” (CCC: 956). “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 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 (2 Macc 12:45). Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (CCC: 958).