ASK FATHER: Can we pray to the deceased who are not saints?

souls-purgatory2From a reader…

I know that the Church encourages the faithful to pray for the intercession of Saints and those who are on the path to being canonized. However, what does the Church teach in regards to praying to the deceased who are not known to be in heaven? For example, I’ve had friends and relatives who have prayed to dead relatives or priests whom they have personally known and believed to have lived holy lives.

From the earliest times, Christians have sought the intercession of their beloved deceased. It was apparent to our ancestors that, because of Christ, death did not sever the relationship we have with our Christian brothers and sisters.

Over the centuries, the process of canonization developed to draw attention to particularly holy persons who were both powerful intercessors and also solid role models for Christian life and death.

The Church allows in her public official liturgies only the invocation of those who have been officially canonized or, limited to specific areas or religious orders, those who have been beatified.

That doesn’t prevent us from seeking the intercession of family members and friends known to us who lived holy lives and are, presumably, in purgatory or heaven.

If they are in purgatory, there remains some doubt as to whether they can intercede on our behalf.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that they cannot (Summa Theologiae II-II. 83.11). St. Robert Bellarmine disagrees (De Purgatorio, lib. II, xv) saying that the souls of the departed can pray for us in purgatory just as much as we can pray for each other on earth. St. Alphonsus Ligouri, St. Catherine of Bologna, and St. Teresa of Avila also say souls in purgatory can pray for us.

All the saints and orthodox theologians, most certainly, endorse the notion that we should pray for our beloved dead. In purgatory, they cannot earn any more indulgences on their own effort, and so rely on us to quicken their release and entrance into paradise.

Of course, souls that are damned to hell cannot pray for us.

If we ask the intercession of someone we THOUGHT was holy but who, instead, is now in hell, then I’m sure that God in His Mercy, will assign our request to another intercessor.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, Four Last Things, Our Catholic Identity. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. acricketchirps says:

    Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Robert Bellarmine, Saint Alphonsus Ligouri, Saint Catherine of Bologna, Saint Teresa of Avila!
    Geez, ask someone who’s been to Purgatory already!

  2. FL_Catholic says:

    This is something I’ve wondered myself for a long time, thanks for clearing this up Father!

  3. Legisperitus says:

    Just a passing thought, but since the afterlife is beyond time as we know it, maybe the prayers we address to the souls in Purgatory are answered by their intercession once they reach Heaven, and God sees it all happening at once.

  4. Geoffrey says:

    I’ve always wondered about “saints” canonized in the Orthodox churches. Are we Catholics allowed to pray to them, under the notion that if they are not in fact in Heaven, then they may be in Purgatory? (I’ve also wondered about how the issue of saints in the Orthodox churches would be handled given an eventual reunification of the two lungs of the Church.)

  5. Sliwka says:

    Geoffrey, it has been done before (St Gregory Palamas for example) and could be done again.

    The harder ones would be the like of St Josaphat (known by some Orthodox as “the Malevolent”) may prove more difficult.

  6. Nan says:

    Geoffrey, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal; we share the saints from approx. the first milennium, then you must remember that some of the Churches from that other lung became Catholic around the year 1600, which gives us more saints. In practice, the Eastern Catholic Churches were brought into Union with Rome with the understanding that their own traditions would continue, such as ordination of married men, etc. and in my canonical parish, there’s an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, canonized in 1903, well-beyond the unification date. In his case, St. John Paul said he was a saint.

    I think that as long as the Eastern Catholic Church recognizes an Orthodox saint you should be fine; Catholic is Catholic. The one Orthodox saint dear to me who isn’t recognized by the Catholic Church is Andrei Rublev, the iconographer; I’m learning iconography.

    My understanding of St. John Paul on breathing with two lungs is that it referred to the Eastern and Western Catholic churches, specifically indicating that Eastern churches shouldn’t latinize; my own church since the current priests arrival has changed many things, including the funeral ritual which is prayers rather than the liturgy previously used in the parish.

    Sliwka, what do you mean it has been done with St. Gregory Palamas? He was clearly a saint prior to the entrance of the Ukrainians and Ruthenians to the Catholic Church so of course he’s a saint; the promise was that the people could continue with the practices of their Orthodox heritage although in communion with Rome. That includes saints. He doesn’t appear on the Western calendar.

  7. jameeka says:

    What do we have to lose?

  8. Sliwka says:


    I merely used him as a post-schism Orthodox saint that became recognized in the Catholic Church.

    Maybe I have my history wrong.

  9. Imrahil says:

    Dear Legisperitus,

    Heaven is beyond time; I’m not so sure (what is more important, I think theologians are not so sure) about Purgatory. Hell, for example, has nothing to do with eternity (proper), and I remember someone paraphrasing St. Thomas that there is rather “something like time” in Hell, without end of course.

    And even in Heaven, some before and after is assumed for angels and saints. There’s some enlightning discussion of that in the Pope emeritus’s Eschatology, though it’s a bit of time that I read that.

  10. robtbrown says:

    Although there is no Time after death, there is, nevertheless, succession. Only God is Eternal, but man can participate in His Eternity.

    Time measures duration and is based on the fact that beings with matter come into and go out of existence (corruption)–both re substantial change (death) and accidental (maturity, grey hair, fingernails, etc.)

  11. I was taught that when we ask the intercession of those who passed, but are not recognized by the Church as a saint, to always pray “for” them at the same time. They may be in Heaven or they may be in Purgatory. If they are where an ice cream cone won’t keep, God will do what He pleases with your prayers. No prayer is wasted.

  12. Legisperitus says:

    Imrahil, thanks for that. I didn’t mean to imply that there is no succession between Purgatory and Hell. More focusing on God’s knowledge that the intercession will occur in Heaven as a possible bridge between the two schools of thought, but I see it doesn’t really eliminate the question of whether the intercession can actually occur in Purgatory.

    Obviously the detained souls cannot merit by their prayers, but to me (pace St. Thomas) it seems that if the Church Militant can intercede with prayer, then the Church Suffering should be able to as well, especially in view of their assurance of a future blessed state.

  13. Suburbanbanshee says:

    St. Therese’s family was always praying to dead relatives for intercession, and getting it. (Not primarily from the ones who later got canonized, either. Read the family letters.) You don’t have to do it, but it is homey and there is tons of precedent.

  14. Nan says:

    Sliwka, it might benefit you to read up on Eastern Catholic history, particularly that of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church; St Josaphat was killed after the Union of Brest, possibly by protestants, after having the last Orthodox priest arrested in a territory that had become Catholic.

    It is this same union that brought St. Gregory Palamas to the Catholic Church, together with all post-schismatic saints up to 1596. It’s misleading to say he became recognized in the Catholic Church as though he alone was recognized as a saint. It’s also misleading to say that “some Orthodox” call St Josaphat “the malevolent.” That was a political statement due to the Ukrainian Church’s entrance to Communion with Rome.

    Eastern Catholic Churches are free to recognize Orthodox saints since coming into Communion with Rome as following Orthodox tradition was part of the deal.

  15. Pingback: RECENT POSTS and THANKS! | Fr. Z's Blog

Comments are closed.