Prayerful Remembering • The grave marker of a couple is illuminated with a candle as a full moon shines through clouds on All Souls’ Day.   CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review

Prayerful Remembering • The grave marker of a couple is illuminated with a candle as a full moon shines through clouds on All Souls’ Day.   CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review

By David Gibson | Catholic News Service

Some people cannot imagine praying for the dead. What is unimaginable to many others is not to pray for those who die.

To be sure, there is more than one way to pray for those who die, just as there is more than one way to pray for those in this world who share intimately in our daily lives. Our greatest hopes for others, whether in this world or the next, are what lend shape to our prayers for them, as does our appreciation of their finest gifts.

Whatever its form, prayer for others focuses on what is best for them, what God intends for them. With that in mind, we commend the dead “to God’s mercy,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out. Indeed, we do.

But there is something beyond petitions for mercy that I find noteworthy about praying for the dead. It is the deep-down sense of continued connection with them that these prayers appear to express.

The loss suffered when someone we love dies is not absolute, which is not to suggest it is not painful. In praying for a parent, a spouse, a child or friend who died recently or long ago, we affirm that – though we may not fully understand how – they still matter for us in ways that add up to much more than the memories documented by old photo albums.

Our love of them remains meaningful, invaluable.

Praying for the dead was hardly unimaginable for Pope Benedict XVI. In a 2007 encyclical titled “Spe Salvi,” he wrote:

“The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death – this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages, and it remains a source of comfort today.

“Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon?”

Those comments by Pope Benedict suggest there are various ways of praying for the dead – that this kind of prayer might even assume the form of a kind, considerate and affectionate conversation.

Petitions to God undoubtedly rank as the principal form of prayer for those who have died. The Church prays, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, that those who die “may attain the beatific vision of God” (No. 1032) and “that no one should be lost” (No. 1058).

But does that imply that our prayers must be colored by a sense of desperate fear regarding the eternal life of someone who has died? It seems good to remember that our pleas for a loved one do not serve as God’s formal introduction to that person.

Maybe we think that after “Harvey” dies that he was hardly perfect, though he was dear to us and good in ways many did not recognize. But should we worry that God, too, did not recognize Harvey’s goodness or found no reason to care for him?

My spirituality prompts me to believe that the people I love are loved even more by God. In praying for them, I try not so much to petition God’s presence to them as to refresh my faith that somehow God always is present to them in ways that genuinely matter.

Dominican Father Brian Shanley, president of Providence College in Rhode Island, spoke in a 2012 address about praying for others.

St. Thomas Aquinas thought “that we can play a role in God’s providence for others through our freely chosen and grace-inspired prayers,” Father Shanley explained.

He also said:

“When we utter a petitionary prayer for someone else, we are not informing God of what God does not know or asking God for a gift that God does not want to give. ... It is part of the largesse of the grace of God that God allows us to cooperate with him in his providence for others.”

Beyond petitions to God, our prayer might assume the form of a meditation on the life of someone who dies. We might ponder how this person’s example constitutes a legacy able to inspire the next stages of our own life.

Our prayers might also be shaped by expressions of gratitude to God for someone who countless times was a gift to us.

Prayer for the dead is undergirded by the Church’s belief in the communion of saints. Pope Francis mentioned this last October.

“There is a communion of life among all those who belong to Christ,” Pope Francis said. This “communion of saints,” he stressed, “goes beyond earthly life.”

Pope Francis pointed to “a deep and indissoluble bond between those who are still pilgrims in this world – us – and those who have crossed the threshold of death and entered eternity.”

For, he said, “all baptized persons here on earth, the souls in purgatory and all the blessed who are already in paradise make one great family.”

Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.