By Father Thom Hennen
Question Box Column
Q. What happens with prayers we say or Masses we have offered for people in purgatory if they are already in heaven?
A. This is a great follow-up to last week’s question on purgatory. The short answer is: I don’t know. I know that is not a very satisfying answer but we are squarely in the territory of speculative theology here. That also means we can “play” a little.
At the very least, I feel confident in saying that no prayer is wasted. It’s not as though St. Peter is up there tallying up prayers and saying, “Looks like we got another batch for Mrs. McGillicuddy. Too bad. She’s been in for ages!”
This brings up another point about prayer in general. While we believe that prayer is effective, we also know that not all of our prayers are answered in the way we might hope, but that doesn’t mean those prayers are “wasted.” Prayer in itself — the act of asking, thanking, praising God — is good. In prayer, we are not trying to bend God’s will to ours but in fact the other way around. For this reason, I think all good prayer should include some version of “thy will be done” or it ought to be implied at least. We find this in the “Our Father” and in Jesus’s personal prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his betrayal, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
We can think here, too, of the passage in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus says, “What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then … know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:11-13). The fact is, sometimes we ask God for the “snake” or the “scorpion” but, thankfully, he knows better than to give us exactly what we ask for.
In one of his letters, St. Augustine writes, “Why [God] should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it) but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us.” In his commentary on one of the psalms St. Augustine writes, “For the desire of your heart is itself your prayer.”
How might we apply this to those seemingly “unused” prayers for our beloved dead or for those prayers that are “unanswered,” at least in the way we might wish? These prayers still “exercise our desire.” They grow our trust in God and expand the heart. They are still acts of love. If nothing else, they change us and draw us closer to God.
Since we are playing, I wonder if those we pray for who are already in heaven might have some say in how those “extra” prayers and graces are applied. Maybe for other family members or for those who have no one to pray for them, those most in need of our prayers, those just on the threshold of heaven and those “last in line.” As with so many things, I guess we’ll find out when we get there.
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to email@example.com)