Can we pray for God to help someone in the past?
The Church has no teaching on this subject—one way or another—and intelligent, orthodox Catholics can have different opinions. My good friend and colleague Tim Staples recently wrote a piece arguing that praying for those in the past doesn’t make sense.
Here I’d like to do a quick recap and then interact with Tim’s objections.
The Basic Idea
Praying for past events can involve three principles:
- God is eternal, existing outside of time in an eternal now.
- God is omniscient, knowing what is happening in every moment in time.
- God is omnipotent, being able to affect every moment in time.
The last two principles are the most important. We’ll see later that the first isn’t essential.
But, using all three: if I pray for someone now, then God knows about my prayer in the eternal now, and, from there, he can affect any moment in history—whether past, present, or future.
Fifty years ago, in 1968, one of my grandmothers died of breast cancer. I could pray, if she is in purgatory, for God to aid her purification, but I don’t know if she was close to God in life and thus likely to die in his friendship.
I do know that God loved her and, even in her dying moments, could give her the grace to make a choice for him. I also know that God is aware of my prayers. Therefore, today—in 2018—if I ask God to help my grandmother as she lay dying, God will hear my prayer in the eternal now, and from there he is capable of giving her his grace in 1968.
It thus makes sense to me to pray for her dying moments, though from my perspective they are in the past.
I’m not the only one who has thought this makes sense. Figures such as Padre Pio and C.S. Lewis have said the same thing, and there is traction for the idea in the private revelations of St. Faustina.
Now let’s look at Tim’s arguments.
Argument #1: Changing the Past
Much of Tim’s piece warns against the idea of changing the past. Some might think that, by praying for God to do something in the past, we are asking him to change what happened.
Tim is right to object to this line of thought.
But by praying for my grandmother, I’m not asking God to change what happened in 1968. It’s not like there was an original timeline in which my grandmother died outside of his friendship and I asked for him to erase that timeline and replace it with one where she didn’t.
In 1968, my grandmother either died in God’s friendship or she didn’t. I’m not asking him to change what happened. But since I don’t know which happened, I’m asking him to give his graces to her when she died. I’m asking him to affect that moment, not undo or reverse that moment.
I thus agree with Tim (and Aquinas, whom he quotes) that once a timeline exists from God’s perspective, it cannot change.
Argument #2: The Church’s Liturgy
Tim argues that the Church’s liturgy does not include prayers for past events, and that’s true as far as I know. But this doesn’t mean that praying about the past is nonsensical or prohibited. In addition to liturgical prayer, the Church has a rich tradition of private devotions and private prayer.
Further, the Church’s tradition is living, and if someone realizes that a new form of prayer is possible, it will be allowed under Christian liberty unless it can be shown to be impermissible.
Also, the Church’s liturgy incorporates prayer that isn’t explored in the official texts. That’s what “the prayers of the faithful” are for at Mass. There are countless topics not mentioned in the Roman Missal (e.g., frozen embryos in fertility clinics, people dying in airplane crashes, astronauts on the International Space Station), and it’s permissible to intercede concerning these during the prayers of the faithful.
In fact, if a priest invites the faithful to offer their own petitions, I would be perfectly free to say, “For my grandmother in her dying moments, we pray to the Lord”—unless someone shows why I can’t.
Until that’s shown, it seems such prayers can find a place in the liturgy at these times.
Argument #3: The Practice of the Church
Tim argues that “the practice of the Church would seem to exclude prayer for the past as a valid option for Catholics. The Church never prays for people in the past other than what we find, for example, in the Catechism in the section on purgatory.”
However, the Catechism isn’t a treatise on everything permitted for Catholics. It is, as its name indicates, a catechetical text—one that provides basic instruction on what the Church teaches. By its nature, it doesn’t go into speculative topics or matters of permitted theological opinion. The Catechism isn’t meant to be used with an “if not mentioned, then not permitted” hermeneutic. That would shut down the entire enterprise of theology, which by its nature goes beyond basic catechesis.
And when we look at the practice of the Church, we do find individual Catholics—e.g., St. Padre Pio—praying for people in the past without censure from Church authority.
Argument #4: The Disservice Argument
Tim argues that if it’s possible to pray for the past, then the Church has done a disservice to past souls by not praying for them in the liturgy. There are several responses.
First, theology develops over time, and we can’t expect earlier ages to use practices only thought of later. The first Christians didn’t think of reserving the Eucharist in tabernacles for the faithful’s adoration, but we can’t say the Church did a disservice to prior Christians by not having thought of this earlier. If the idea of praying for the past is only now gaining popularity, the Church hasn’t done a disservice up to now.
Second, the Church does pray for every soul. The Catechism explains:
The Church prays that no one should be lost: “Lord, let me never be parted from you.” If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4), and that for him “all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26) (1058).
This doesn’t explore how God may apply his grace to souls. It leaves that up to God. But the Church does pray for every soul.
Third, the Church has always prayed for people in the current day. In 1968, the Church was praying (implicitly or explicitly) for my grandmother as she lay dying.
Thus, there are no souls left out of the Church’s intercession. Fundamentally, the Church favors praying for the salvation of souls, and unless a compelling reason is shown why I shouldn’t, the Church favors me praying for my grandmother’s salvation.
Argument #5: God’s Eternity
Tim’s final argument deals with the nature of God’s eternity. It’s too complex to describe here, and I don’t share all of Tim’s premises.
We both agree that God is eternal (outside of time), but we differ on the nature of time. He holds that only the present exists, whereas I hold that the past and future also exist (see here). However, for the sake of argument, I can grant everything he proposes about time and eternity.
So let me eject from my argument the fact that God is eternal and focus just on his omniscience and omnipotence. Even if (per impossible) God were not outside of time, the following would be true:
- In 1968, as my grandmother lay dying, God would know (by his omniscience) that in 2018 I would be praying for her happy death.
- In 1968, God would be capable (by his omnipotence) of giving her his grace.
- Therefore, in 1968, God would know about my 2018 prayer (by his omniscience) and be capable of granting it (by his omnipotence).
Eternity doesn’t need to be brought into the discussion. Neither does the reality of the future year 2018. God could still, in 1968, grant the prayer I would one day make, so my prayer makes sense.
A Marian Postscript
Tim also discusses an objection some might make concerning Mary’s Immaculate Conception: Didn’t God give her this grace early based on what her Son would later do? Tim says that he did and that this did not involve changing the past.
He is entirely correct. God did—around 17 B.C.—give graces to Mary in anticipation of what her Son would accomplish in A.D. 33.
In the same way, God could—in 1968—give graces to my grandmother in anticipation of what I would ask in 2018.
There’s more Tim and I could say, but I hope this has been an illuminating discussion of a topic on which Catholics may hold different views.