Why we offer Masses for the dead

By Fr. John Girotti | The Compass | January 10, 2020


How, exactly, do our departed loved ones benefit from Masses offered for them or candles lit in their memory? (Appleton)


As Catholics, we believe the church is a living, breathing, visible reality. Besides its spiritual attributes, it can be identified and seen. Traditionally, the church has been understood in three parts: “the Church Militant,” “the Church Triumphant” and “the Church Suffering.”

  • We who are alive today belong to the Church Militant — involved in living out our Catholic faith in Jesus Christ, and making and forming disciples by passing on the faith. Fundamentally, we “fight the good fight” of the Christian life.
  • The Church Triumphant is the saints in heaven — all the people, whether formally canonized or not, who are with the Lord Jesus and who pray for us here on earth. Triumphantly, they cheer us on by their prayers and example.
  • Finally, we have the Church Suffering. They are the souls of the dead, who are saved and being prepared for heaven in purgatory. They are greatly helped by our prayers.

As we can see, the church is bigger than just here and now. It transcends time and space. With this preamble, what is the purpose of Mass intentions for the dead? Mass intentions can be applied to living persons, but why pray for the dead? What is the spiritual purpose? Are these naming rights or ads — “this Mass brought to you by the late Mrs. Jane Smith who reminds you to be kind to puppies and kittens?” Certainly not!

As Catholics, we believe the Mass is the highest act of worship — the greatest form of prayer. Every Mass is a participation in the one, infinite sacrifice of Jesus Christ to save us from our sins. Each Mass also continues the Last Supper where Jesus feeds us with his Body and Blood.

Fundamentally, at Mass we worship God and offer our prayers along with the priest to God the Father, through the saving action of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We know the practice of Masses for souls of the dead dates to the early church. But if the souls of those who have died are in heaven, they don’t need our prayers. Correct! And if the souls of those who have died are in hell, our prayers will do no good since their souls are lost for eternity. Sadly true.

However, if those who have died are being purified in purgatory and on their way to heaven, our prayers can be enormously helpful. Praying for the dead is a great act of mercy. We pray that their time of purification might be quick and complete and that, through God’s grace, they might enjoy the glories of heaven. What better way to pray for those who have died than to apply the most powerful prayer of the Mass?

Hence, we see the origin and rationale of Mass intentions for the dead. Incidentally, references to this practice can be found in the 12th chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees as well as various places in the New Testament. Praying for the dead and the reality of purgatory remains a dogmatic teaching of our Catholic faith.

Remember that what we do here on earth has spiritual ramifications. Praying for the dead, lighting a candle which symbolizes this prayer and offering a Mass for these souls is a beautiful and powerful way to live our faith. We are all united in this one church — militant, triumphant and suffering. And we care for each other by our prayers.


Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.


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