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Ask the Register: when do the dead reach heaven?

Q. People will often have Masses offered for the deceased. How do we know when a soul receives the necessary graces from these Masses and enters heaven? If the person is already in heaven, and a Mass is offered for the deceased, what happens to those graces the person no longer needs? 

A. The greatest way to show love to our beloved dead is to pray for them. The 2nd Book of Maccabees tells us “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46).

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the greatest of all prayers because it is a perfect prayer of love from Jesus to His Heavenly Father through the saving action of His paschal mystery. There is a longstanding tradition in the Church of offering this perfect prayer of love for the intention of the deceased. 

The priest acts in the the person of Christ when celebrating Mass, and so it is usually considered that graces may be obtained for the intention of the priest. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “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” (CCC 1032). So, to have a priest celebrate a Mass for a deceased person is an act of love. 

Jesus used death, the greatest tool of the evil one, by putting death to death through His own death on the cross. Because Jesus died and was resurrected by the Father, we, too, can share in his resurrection. This is our greatest source of hope. St. Paul mocks the power of death as he says, “Where, O death, is your victory.  Where, O death, is your sting” (1 Cor 15:55). 

And yet, death remains mysterious to us. Ordinarily, we do not know when a person receives the sufficient grace to enter into heaven because we don’t know the state of the soul of the person who passes from this life. The Catholic Church has the process of beatification and canonization, where she declares that an individual has entered into eternal splendor. But, this process is only for those whose cause is heard by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

We should never cease praying for the dead and offering Masses for the deceased.  Even if the soul for whom we offer Mass enters into eternal splendor, the merits of that Mass are not wasted, but apply to others who are in need.

Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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