Consider the following scenario. A close friend or family member has died. Although that person may have been baptized, loving God and living a Christian life did not seem to be a priority. He appeared to commit mortal sins, perhaps routinely. Although you prayed for him while he was alive and may have admonished him, you did not observe that he repented before death. You are deeply troubled that his soul may not have made it to purgatory, let alone heaven.
This article offers the hopeful message that actions one takes now and in the future may help save another’s soul even though that individual has died. While at first glance this may seem to contradict logic, it is in fact a conclusion derived from Church doctrine.
Offerings for the dead
As faithful Catholics, we are taught that we should offer prayers and reparations for the dead. This is a spiritual work of mercy, a meritorious act on our part:
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).
However, the Church teaches that not all of the departed souls may benefit from our offerings. Upon death, souls separate from their bodies and receive their particular judgment, resulting in the soul immediately entering heaven, purgatory, or everlasting damnation in hell. In the first case, the soul does not benefit from offerings made on its behalf, because it has already attained the beatific vision and has no need of further purification to reach heaven. Such offerings for these saintly souls are not “wasted” but are applied to other souls who can benefit.
If the soul is in purgatory, it will benefit from such offerings, which serve to atone in full or in part for the balance of the soul’s debt to justice caused by his sins, and thus expedite the soul’s purification and transition to heaven. If the soul has already been eternally damned, offerings will not help the soul, but, again, may be applied to souls that can benefit.
So should we conclude that we should offer prayers and reparations only for souls who we think are in purgatory?
Certainly not! Aside from the merit we may receive, and aside from the trust that we should have that such offerings will always find a worthy recipient, even if not the one we intended, we cannot be certain in our lifetimes the state of a deceased person’s soul. Too often in liturgies for the dead we hear expressions of confidence that the soul must be in heaven. Such words, intended to comfort the living, may serve to curtail prayers and sacrifices for the deceased one’s soul and hence prolong its suffering in purgatory.
On the other hand, we cannot presume to know the limits of God’s mercy toward souls who we may presume to have eternally separated themselves from God. We should therefore make it our regular practice to offer prayers and sacrifices for the souls of the deceased in the hope that they may benefit directly, with the certainty that some souls will benefit.
Can offerings for the dead be salvific?
Let’s go a step further and consider the following hypothesis: our offerings for the dead can actually help those souls avoid eternal damnation. We are taught that the souls of the dead have been judged and are already in heaven, in purgatory, or in hell. So how can praying for them help them avoid hell? Is this heresy?
I will demonstrate why it’s not. First, however, consider three arguments I am not making.
Three erroneous arguments for this conclusion
Hell is empty.
First, this is not simply a tangent of the “reasonable chance that hell is or ultimately will be essentially empty of souls” hypothesis. While God’s infinite mercy extends beyond what any of us can comprehend, the overwhelming testimony from both divine revelation and the private revelations of canonized saints trumps the speculation of theologians.
Our Lord states clearly: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14; see also Luke 13:24-28).
In Matthew 25:31-46, where Jesus discusses the final judgment, he says that the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats, and the goats will go into “eternal punishment,” “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Why discuss separating sheep from goats if there will be no goats? There are many other examples in the Gospels of Jesus warning his disciples against hell. Why these warnings if we’re all saved?
Additionally, among those private revelations deemed worthy of belief involving visions of hell, none found hell empty. Sr. Lucia described the vision of hell that our Lady showed the children at Fatima as one of demons and souls in human form plunged into a great sea of fire. St. John Bosco had a detailed vision of many people he knew in hell and on the road thereto in a dream, which Pope Pius IX ordered him to record for the benefit of others. St. Faustina wrote:
I, Sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abysses of hell so that I might tell souls about it and testify to its existence. . . . I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell. . . . How terribly souls suffer there! (Diary 741).
God loves us so much that he grants us free will. Sadly, some souls choose to follow their own will rather than God’s, even unto eternal damnation.
God does not change his mind.
Second, I do not propose the heretical notion that the outcome of a soul’s particular judgment may be changed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately—or immediate and everlasting damnation (CCC 1022).
Granted, there are a number of examples in both the Old and the New Testaments in which God seems to change his mind. In Exodus 32:14, “the Lord changed his mind” about destroying the Israelites for their grave sin after Moses implored God to relent. In Matthew 15:22-30, Jesus changes his mind and heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter after hearing her faith. In these and other examples from Scripture, God may appear to “change his mind,” but that reflects more our limited minds than God’s mind.
God, being omniscient, sees clearly what will happen. Therefore it is better for us to think of these examples as lessons in faith and the efficacy of intercessory prayer rather than as examples of God changing his mind. In particular, one should not take from these examples that our prayers can “change God’s mind” about a soul’s particular judgment after it has occurred. Once a soul’s fate is determined, we must accept that that’s it.
There are no last chances.
Third, while some might hope for “one last chance” to repent and receive God’s mercy after death, that is not what the Church teaches. The particular judgment occurs “at the very moment” of death, as noted in the Catechism above (notwithstanding the reported miracle involving St. John Bosco raising one of his Oratory boys from the dead so that he could hear the boy’s final confession, thus sparing him from hell).
Several passages from the Gospels (e.g., Luke 13:24-28, quoted above, and the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13) suggest that we must be prepared at the moment of our death, and if we’re not, the door will be closed to us. In any case, my hypothesis does not depend on any delay in judgment after death.
Salvific offerings for those yet living
Can we make offerings for others that may help their salvation? Yes, although why remains a mystery. First we must acknowledge that we do not do the saving; that is the sole province of our Lord through his Passion and Crucifixion. Nevertheless, God has chosen to allow us to participate in his salvific work, presumably because our doing so conforms us more closely to God’s image and will.
The Church affirms in many ways that our prayers and sacrifices for God’s mercy and grace of salvation for another are both efficacious and pleasing to God. The Old and New Testaments contain many examples of intercessory prayers, including by Jesus Christ himself (see John 17:9-26), and our Lord commands us to pray for others (see Matthew 5:44). The Mass includes many prayers of intercession. For example, the Confiteor concludes, “therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”
Many canonized saints are celebrated in part for their intercessory prayers and sacrifices, and some received private revelations of the importance of those offerings. St. Faustina recorded that Jesus repeatedly told her to pray for sinners (see sidebar p. x).
Even more than prayer, sacrifices made on behalf of sinners may be particularly important for their salvation. At Fatima, our Lady told Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco, “Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to hell, because there are none to sacrifice themselves and to pray for them” (Fr. Louis Kondor, Fatima in Lucia’s Won Words: Sister Lucia’s Memoirs (Aug. 13, 1917)).
And again: “Sacrifice yourselves for sinners, and say many times, especially whenever you make some sacrifice: O Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary” (Memoirs (13 July 1917)).
Our Lord told St. Faustina, “If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering” (Diary 1804).
Why suffering? Because suffering made on behalf of another, united to our Lord’s on the cross, follows his example of sacrificial love. His response to such offerings is to shed his divine mercy and salvific grace upon that person, though such mercy and grace still must be accepted by the penitent soul to achieve salvation.
Our offering of prayers and sacrifices for others’ salvation pleases God, because it shows him that we love him. Jesus told us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And what is the second great commandment? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). According to St. Thomas Aquinas, to love is to will the good of another, and there is no greater good than the other’s salvation.
Why offerings for the dead can be salvific
Notice that the grace of eternal salvation for certain souls occurs “in their final moment” (according to our Lord’s message to St. Faustina). However, God exists outside of space and time, so he sees all moments of time simultaneously: past, present, and future. This is the key to why offerings for the dead can be salvific: God may apply our intercessions prayed now to those who have already died, up to the (past) final moment of their lives!
This is not precluded by our Faith and in fact is supported by analogous reasoning from established doctrine. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus in 1854, but part of Sacred Tradition from the time of the early Church, states:
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin (CCC 491).
Note that this refers to the merits of Jesus Christ, who would not be incarnate for more than a dozen years and whose salvific sacrifice on the cross would not occur for thirty-three years beyond that. The only explanation for this is that God operates outside of time. The saving merit of Jesus, which was done decades after Mary’s Immaculate Conception, was applied to this past event. In other words, God applied merit earned in the future to at least one soul in the past.
Since God can apply future merit to past circumstances, and since he wants as many souls as possible to be saved, why wouldn’t he do everything possible, up to the limits of his justice and our free will, to allow souls to be saved, including applying our efficacious offerings to sinners who have already died, up until the moments of their deaths?
From our limited perspective of sequential time, souls who have died have already received their particular judgment and are now in heaven, purgatory, or hell. Nevertheless, up until the final moments of their lives, our offerings may have opened the door to the grace of eternal salvation for their souls, if they were lacking such grace.
In those final moments, God sees all of our offerings made in our lifetimes for their salvation, even though, at those moments, we may not yet have made those offerings. Therefore, even our future offerings for the dead may help their salvation if we pray that they repented and received God’s mercy and the grace of eternal salvation before they died. This could happen in an instant of time, which would be essential for those who died suddenly.
Support in 2 Maccabees 12
The account in 2 Maccabees 12:39-45, which has been cited as offering scriptural support for the doctrine of purgatory, may also support the thesis of salvific offerings for the dead.
Our Faith teaches us that the souls of the fallen soldiers would be in purgatory only if they had not committed any unrepented mortal sins. Was their sin of idolatry mortal? We cannot be certain, since we do not know their degree of culpability, but it certainly involved a grave offense against God—serious enough to have cost the fallen their earthly lives, according to the beliefs of the time. Judas and his men thought that the fallen had committed grave sin, or else they would not have perished, “and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out.”
“The noble Judas,” in a “holy and pious thought,” “made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” These were offerings of prayers and alms in an appeal to God to allow the fallen to “fall asleep in godliness,” since they could not be delivered from their sin if they died in mortal sin.
This follows the example of the family of martyrs in 2 Maccabees 7, who believed not only that their martyrdom would lead to their resurrection but that it could atone for the just punishment by God of the sins of others.
There are only two ways the fallen soldiers in 2 Maccabees 12 could fall asleep in godliness: (1) their sin was not mortal, or (2) God allowed them to repent, and gave them mercy and forgiveness for their mortal sin in the moments before their deaths as a consequence of the future offerings of Judas and his men (and, of course, the future Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord). The latter seems to be at least as likely an explanation as the former, which provides scriptural support for the thesis of salvific offerings for the dead.
God has asked us to offer prayers and sacrifices for others so that we might participate in their salvation won by our Lord on the cross. While he loves us so much that he allows us to reject him, he clearly prefers that none of his children be lost. He is not bound by the limits of time, and the Immaculate Conception demonstrates that he can apply future salvific merit to souls in the past. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that He would apply our future offerings for others made after they died to have helped them die with the grace of salvation.
Jesus tells us in Luke 11:5-8 that perseverance in prayer is effective. If we truly love God and want to demonstrate that love for him, we will pray, pray, pray and offer frequent sacrifices that the souls of our dearly departed were saved before they died.
Of course, we cannot expect to know whether such offerings have helped bring about what we intend while we remain alive, and this in itself is a sacrifice and expression of hope and faith and trust in God that he must find pleasing. Pray that God will ultimately reveal to you the souls you have participated in saving.