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By Mitch Finley
Are Catholics born-again Christians? Why do Catholics pray for the dead when they go by a cemetery?
– Kathy M.
The term “born again” comes from older translations of the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus in the Gospel of John (3:1-10):
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.”
The phrase “born again” actually does not occur in the New Testament, but the idea is implied in the passage from the Fourth Gospel quoted here. Evangelical Protestant Christians use “born again” to refer to a single act of faith wherein one “accepts Jesus Christ as his/her personal savior.” Having done this, one is presumed to have been “born again” and is therefore “saved.”
Catholics don’t tend to speak in the same terms because we think of being “saved” as a lifelong process, not a one-time event. Also, Catholics believe that the process of being saved has consequences. Theologian and story teller John Shea told a story years ago. He said that one summer day he was relaxing on a seaside beach when he was approached by two young men wearing dark suits. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” one inquired. Shea pondered the question a moment then, with a wry smile, replied: “Unfortunately, yes!”
John Shea explained to the young men that Jesus proclaims the heart of the gospel message in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
“Repent,” Shea continued, translates the Greek word, metanoia, meaning to turn one’s whole life around, away from self and toward God and neighbor, a process that takes a lifetime of sacrifice, effort, difficulty, inconvenience and a constant daily rededication of oneself to reliance on the grace of God.
In a nutshell, then Catholics are not so much “saved” as “being saved,” and the joy that comes with it requires acceptance of a lifetime of trials and troubles. In other words, Catholics know that the joy of experiencing the resurrection cannot be separated from the experience of the cross, each and every day for a lifetime.
You also asked about why Catholics pray for the dead. You added “when they go by a cemetery.” It’s true that Catholics pray for the dead, and some cultivate the habit of doing so when they happen to pass a cemetery. But your main question is why Catholics pray for the dead.
Here’s the thing: Catholics pray for others, both the living and the dead. We do so because we believe that the community of faith, the church, exists in both time and space and eternity. We pray for one another in this world because we believe that we can support one another as we move along the pilgrim path that is life here and now. But we believe that we can also support those who have passed into eternity because, from a temporal perspective, they may still be experiencing “purgatory” (which you may read about in an earlier “Ask a Catholic” article here). We can support them and help them with our prayers as they pass through what we call “purgatory.” Incidentally, Catholics also believe that those now in heaven can pray for us, in return. That’s why Catholics pray to saints—including, most notably, Mary the mother of Jesus—asking them to pray for us. We don’t worship or adore the saints, only God is worthy of adoration. But the saints are our friends in heaven, and they can and will pray for us when we ask them to do so.