Why do Catholics offer Masses for the dead?
Christians know that death is not the end of life but the real beginning. Freed from the imperfections of earthly existence, the dead are more alive than we are. They are with us, and we still live with them in love.
St. John tells us about the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation. It’s more beautiful, more glorious, than we can imagine. “But nothing unclean shall enter it,” he adds (Rev 21:27). So the Catholic Church tells us that there is a purification after death. St. Paul hints at it when he writes to the Corinthians about building on the foundation of Christ:
“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:11-15).
In metalworking, fire burns off the impurities, leaving only pure metal. Paul sees the same sort of thing happening on the Day of the Lord. Whoever has built on the foundation of Jesus Christ will be saved, but first “fire” will purify us. This purification is what we call purgatory. There all our impurities are cleaned away and we are made ready to enter heaven. We offer Masses for the dead as a way of speeding that purification for them.
Offering sacrifices for someone else is certainly no new idea. It was common practice in Old Testament times. “Job’s sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ Thus Job did continually. (Job 1:4-5)
Job, who was “blameless and upright,” offered sacrifices for his sons just in case. Offering sacrifice for another is something a good person was expected to do.
If indeed the dead are still with us, and even more alive than we are, then it would be shameful neglect not to pray and make offerings for them as much as for the living. The second book of Maccabees tells us how Judas Maccabeus offered prayers and sacrifices for his dead soldiers when he discovered that they had sinned.
We Catholics pray and offer Masses both for the dead and for the living — and for exactly the same reasons.
MIKE AQUILINA is the author or editor of more than 40 books on Catholic history, doctrine and devotion. This column is reprinted with permission from his book Understanding the Mass: 100 Questions, 100 Answers (Servant Books, 2011).
From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them — above all the Eucharistic sacrifice — so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1032