Why does the Church pray for the dead? Can our prayers save someone already condemned to hell?
Some Protestants say its wrong to pray for the dead, however Catholics believe that the dead may be in need of our prayers if they’re still in purgatory. We believe that some people, even after being forgiven here on earth, still need to expiate their sins in purgatory. They could not do so on earth, so God gives them an opportunity to be cleansed. We do not however believe that God gives people an opportunity to repent after death, this isn’t the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Unrepentant sinners cannot change when they’re dead, their state of impenitence continues for all eternity. They will rebel against God as they did in life and cannot be saved anymore. This state is called “hell”.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (CCC 1035)
A soul that has chosen to reject God’s light on earth and after death (hell), cannot be saved by a billion masses/prayers. So whenever we pray, we ask God for those who are still on their way to heaven, those who are still passing through the cleansing state of purgatory. We are united with them so our prayers affect them, their prayers affect us, and those in heaven intercede for them and for us as well. Our communion continues even when they are no more on earth. This is why the Church never stops praying for the dead.
Bottom-line: Those in hell cannot be saved through our prayers, but since we cannot know the fate of particular individuals, we continue to pray for them because we loved them in life, and because we hope in the mercy of God which is bigger than all our sins.
Peace be with you !