Praying for others is an important part of our faith life, but one listener asks Father Dave what to do when the list of intentions feels too long. Elisa says, “Every day, I pray different intentions for people with cancer or people who have died. My intention lists are getting longer and longer! People ask me to pray for them, sometimes people I am not close to, but I add them to the lists…I feel guilty [removing them] but, I am not sure when to take them off the lists.” She also wonders when to stop praying for the repose of one’s soul after they pass away.
“It is very laudable for you Elisa, and other people, who genuinely do pray for people by name all the time,” Father Dave begins. “The best thing about prayer, and particularly intercessions, is that God knows the hearts of all these [people]. In fact, we just had the reading from Saint Paul, Romans Chapter 8, where he says we don’t know how to pray; the Spirit intercedes for us. So God knows all of these intentions, you’re not failing these people if you don’t mention them all.”
He continues, “Now that I’ve been a priest [for] more years, my lists are way longer too. Something that I find helpful is that I will limit either my time or limit [the prayer] in a certain way, like sometimes I’ll use rosary beads.” Father Dave describes how he will pray a Rosary and offer an intercession with each Hail Mary on each bead. “I really kind of use that as a way for the Holy Spirit to raise up those particular things that are perhaps most needed, because again, the Holy Spirit knows better than I do.”
“When I get to the end of the Rosary, I’m done,” he says. “Maybe I haven’t mentioned every single same person that I did last time, maybe there was somebody that I didn’t pray for, but I’m going to put that on the Holy Spirit and not me; I’m going to release myself from the guilt.” He also describes how on the last bead of the Rosary, he will offer up anyone who has asked for his prayers.
“That may sound like a cop out, but it’s not. You’re not skipping your prayers that day, you just have so many prayers that it becomes untenable in some ways,” Father Dave explains. “For us, this is all finite, and for God, it is not. God is infinite. So God is not limited by our time or the number of rosary beads that are in my hand. God embraces all of these intentions.” He also offers other prayer tactics used by Timothy Cardinal Dolan and Kathryn Whitaker.
Father Dave addresses the second part of Elisa’s question, which asks when to stop praying for one’s soul after they have died. He first notes that the Church doesn’t offer a specific amount of time in purgatory before reaching heaven. “There’s no real way for us to know [they’re in heaven] other than the saint-making process,” he says. “For people that haven’t gone through the official process, I will often say to folks that you [may] get a sense that your loved one is now interceding for you. I’ve had a few inklings from my mom, who died less than two years ago, that she’s up there interceding. I can’t prove it; It wouldn’t pass muster in the Vatican’s court of sainthood. But if I’m convinced that she is in heaven, then I feel comfortable [enough] to stop praying for her.”
Father Dave offers, “You could try asking for their intercession and see what happens. That’s what we do in the [official] process to sainthood, that’s how we begin testing it out in the first place.”