Post-Mortem Prayer

Can praying for a dead person help get him into heaven?

Can you help a deceased love one to heaven through prayer?

Pope Benedict XVI announced Sunday that he would pray for the 19 revelers trampled to death at a techno musical festival in Duisburg, Germany. Do Christians think praying can help a dead person get into heaven?

Not exactly. All Christians believe that only God can determine whether a person belongs in heaven or in hell. Entreaties on behalf of the deceased can’t sway God from what’s right, but post-mortem praying does have other uses. For one, Catholics, who unlike Protestants believe in purgatory, think prayer helps speed the transition from this celestial waiting room to heaven. * Furthermore, Christian doctrine teaches that all human beings, living and dead, are so closely connected that we can be described as “one body.” (Catholics refer to this idea as the “Communion of the Saints.” Protestant churches also subscribe to this concept, though in slightly varied form.) Under that logic, when a Christian prays for someone who has died, he is also praying for himself. He therefore brings himself closer to God and closer to salvation.

It’s common for the pope to pray for dearly departed strangers, but Catholics don’t believe that God necessarily pays more attention to the pope than to any other Christian. Assuming the pope is selfless and good, God will take note of his prayers—as he would prayers from other selfless and good Christians—and might agree to trim down a purgatorial stay. But, again, even a selfless, saintly pope can’t persuade God to let a sinner out of hell.

Mormons teach that prayer can’t move God to change his mind about a dead person, but they endorse one very controversial post-mortem tactic. Living Mormons who have already been baptized can undergo the procedure again on behalf of someone who was not baptized into the Mormon religion during his lifetime. This practice does not automatically get a person into paradise, but it’s considered a prerequisite. In the mid-’90s, the Church of Jesus Christ of  Latter-day Saints was criticized for vicariously baptizing dead people without asking permission of their living family members. Jewish organizations, for example, were enraged to learn that Mormons had performed proxy baptisms for both Nazis and Holocaust victims, including Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank. Mormons agreed to limit post-death baptism to their own ancestors in 1995, but members have frequently been accused  violating this policy.

Christians, of course, don’t limit their prayers to the deceased—they also pray for the sick, and several recent studies have tested whether this practice contributes to recovery. The answer appears to be no. As part of a study published in the American Heart Journal in 2006, researchers asked Christian congregations to pray for two groups of cardiac patients—the first group knew the Christians were praying on their behalf, and the second thought they might be. As a control, researchers told a third group that Christians might pray for them, but the Christians did not do so. Mortality rates were comparable across the three groups, but the unprayed-for group experienced the fewest complications.

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Explainer thanks Paul Crowley of Santa Clara University, Monsignor Charles Fink of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, John F. Haught of Georgetown University, and Terrence W. Tilley of Fordham University.

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Correction, July 28, 2010: The original version used the word “limbo” as a synonym for purgatory. Limbo is a separate concept in the Catholic tradition. (Return to the corrected sentence.)