Should we pray for people who reject prayer?

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Question: You wrote in a previous column that one ought not baptize a dying person against their known will. Is it wrong to have a Mass offered for a deceased atheist? Years ago, I said to a friend, “I will keep you in my prayers.” She retorted, “Don’t say that!” She even wrote me a long angry letter detailing how I should never use that language with her and how “offensive” it was. When she died about 10 years ago, I’ve never forgotten her and continue to pray for her soul. But, given her vehement opposition to the Faith, was it wrong to have a Mass said for her?

Mary Beth Gilligan, Clifton, Colorado

Answer: No, it is not wrong and should especially be encouraged in a case like this. Before looking at the specifics of this case, consider the possible outcomes of any prayer for the departed. If they are in heaven, they do not need our prayers, so we can conclude that such prayers will benefit others to whom the Lord assigns them. If a person is in hell, they cannot benefit from our prayers and, here too, the Lord would likely assign such prayers to others. The third scenario is that the soul of the departed is in purgatory and can greatly benefit from the prayers. Surely, every soul who makes it to purgatory, Catholic or not, now knows the truth of God and all things and would be thrilled to have prayers and Masses said for them.

As for your friend’s rejection of prayers and purported atheism, there are no atheists in the afterlife. All have faced the Lord for judgment and know full well that he exists. In the chance that your friend repented before death and is now in purgatory, she could not take offense at your prayers and would be grateful. If she is in hell, it is unlikely she would even know of them or care.

Even while she was in this world, prayers were appropriate for her. When people reject necessary help, those who love them will still try and offer that help. For example, if a person is threatening to leap from a tall roof in suicide, we do not simply heed their rejection of help; we do everything possible to dissuade them and thwart their plans, including attempts to grab them or to deploy a net or something to catch them should they leap. Hence, you rightly continued to pray for your friend despite her rejection of it while she lived, even if you charitably kept that fact discreet and worked quietly to deploy the net of prayer.

In terms of baptism, one’s will is an essential component since the sacrament engages the free assent of the one baptized and summons them to the Faith through repentance. To baptize an unwilling person of age profits them little or nothing. And if, perchance, someone repents at the last moment of life, they would be said to have baptism of desire. Praying for someone does not require anything of them, but simply asks God to grant them the sanctifying graces necessary for salvation or other actual graces for a specific need. As such, one is free to privately pray for anyone whether they like it or not.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at Send questions to