Why Do We Need to Pray for the Dead?

For souls in purgatory, their wills are basically good. They are saved. But they are not what they should be.

Karol Tichy, “Elegy,” ca. 1900
Karol Tichy, “Elegy,” ca. 1900 (photo: Public Domain)

November is a month dedicated to prayer for the souls in Purgatory. Why do we need to pray for them?

Some might say out of charity. Doing things out of charity is always good and sometimes even obligatory. But why do we need to pray for the dead?

Others might say in order to “help” them. But why do they need our help? Is our help really necessary, or is it a nice and useful supplement? Does it “help” in the sense of “two hands are better than one?” Or does it “help” in the sense that “without one hand, there’s none?”

The answer is the latter. 

The dead can do nothing for themselves. Without our help, they are helpless – but for the grace of God.

Let that sink in. The dead are impotent as regards their own cause. They can do nothing for themselves.


What happens at death? At death, the human person, who is a body and a soul, is shattered: the personal unity and integrity of the person is broken.

That means that what the person is at the moment that unity was broken is what the person is forever. Why? Two reasons:

First, having passed from this life, a human person has entered eternity. Eternity is not “a long time.” Eternity is no time. Eternity is the present. For God, there is no “past,” “present” or “future.” He Who Is, Is … and everything isbefore him. When we enter eternity, we enter God’s dimension and leave ours. What we are is, therefore, what we are … always. 

Second, the human person is a unity of body and soul. What “I” do is done in a spiritual and bodily way. When I spiritually choose to give alms, for example, my body writes the check. When I spiritually choose to kill somebody, my hand wields the knife. What “I” do is what I as a bodily and spiritual person do. When body and spirit are separated, the “acting person” has passed beyond the realm of acting in a way that can be morally determinative of whom I am, whom I can make myself (with God’s grace) to be. 

We don’t appreciate the essential role of our bodiliness in our personhood because we have denigrated the body. Christianity speaks of the body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit,” but our culture speaks of the body as a “tool,” a casing, an instrument “we” (i.e., our minds) use to accomplish things. We even believe we can have the “wrong” body. So, there is a fundamental dissonance between how Christianity traditionally viewed the meaning of the human body and how modernity does.

If the body is an essential element of whom we are, then the person as a moral agent who can change is fixed at death. For souls in heaven, there is no need to change: they have accomplished the purpose of their lives and would not want to change it. For souls in hell, there is no way to change: they have failed the purpose of their lives but, being whom they are, also perversely don’t want to change it. Yes, they’d like to reject the pain of damnation, but they also insist on rejecting God. You can’t make somebody love you and we all have the experience of people who, hurting themselves, nevertheless reject love.  And, if you reject God, you are damned. There’s no getting around that.

For souls in purgatory, their wills are basically good. They are saved. But they are not what they should be. They are not worthy of God. If they were alive, they could do things themselves to make themselves more pleasing to God. But they are not alive in the full human sense.

Their capacity to become more pleasing to God rests on us. Their capacity depends on our charity – because we are alive, and so can do meritorious things, for ourselves and for others. One day we, too, will also lose that capacity, but right now we have it. Use it … because you will lose it.

Purgatory teaches us solidarity and charity. There are no souls in Purgatory who are saved by doing it “my way” – since they can’t do it. There are no Horatio Algers in Purgatory. Look at Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.” Nobody’s pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, though others are pulling some up by Rosaries.

The dead do not lose their wills. Their wills are fixed. They are fixed not by some Divine decree, but because we are what we are when we enter God’s dimension of eternity, when death and the possibility of change that belongs to time is ever past.

How can we say “their wills are fixed?” Doesn’t free will mean we can always change our minds? No. God did not give us freedom to be free, but to be good, to be good freely. Freedom is a tool, not the goal. And man is never free in evil, however illusorily he might believe he is.

Our wills are fixed on the good, like a compass is fixed on the magnetic North Pole. That is what our wills reach for.

If we live as God designed us to live, using his grace and our freedom for the good, we will succeed. We can, of course, resist, but a compass will strain towards the North Pole even if one puts a pin in the dial to force the needle straight south. Two plus two will never make five, no matter how much we want it to. We can insist but, as the saying goes, “we only hurt ourselves.”

Hell is the consummate example of “only hurting ourselves.” Purgatory is a recognition that the needle of our will encounters resistance in finding true north. Maybe the axis is rusted. Maybe it hasn’t been oiled. Maybe the needle has a crack. It wants to get to where it should be, but can’t. Not unless somebody else repairs it.

So, what lessons do we need to draw? Three:

  1. Appreciate your body which, as an essential part of your person, makes it possible for you to do things that have moral significance and that morally define who you are.
  2. Use it before you lose it: thank God for the gift of being able to shape yourself and help others in this life through his grace and your freedom.
  3. Pray and offer good deeds for the souls in Purgatory, who absolutely need your help now to bring their lives, already defined, to perfection and completion.