Praying to Ancestors and Catholicism

How does the Church view the traditional practice of praying to ancestors in Native American and Chinese (and other) cultures?

I think most people ask their deceased relatives in heaven to pray for them.


I also pray for them in case they’re in Purgatory.

There is a great deal of difference between ancestor worship and asking for intercession from or for those who have gone before us.


I’m always praying for the repose of their souls & ask them to pray for me.

Do you mean in the sense of Ancestor Worship?
If that’s the case, it’d be a form of idolatry.
Sure we can pray to our ancestors in the hope that they can mediate for us, but offering them gifts/trying to get them onside/trying to appease them for past wrongs etc is wrong. For a start, the spirits of the deceased are not in this material world.

Worshipping ancestors as deities violates the First Commandment; praying for them and asking them to intercede on your behalf is good spiritual behavior.

I think it is important to look past the labels.

Among Chinese Catholics, it is acceptable to pay respect to our ancestors. Indeed our bishops do encourage us to so and there are no objections for Chinese to ‘walk the graves’ during the Chinese version of All Souls Day. We pray at the graves for the souls of the departed and may even use joss-sticks, etc. like Buddhists, and Taoists do. Sometimes that may even be in a temple setting. We just have to make sure we pray to God and not anyone else.

Some Chinese homes may even have the ancestor tablets (on which are inscribed the names of the ancestor) at the family altar. Again that is allowed provided God takes pride of place at the family altar. As it is most family altars are already crowded with Mother Mary and the saints. Mine have photos of the faithful departed clustered around the big crucifix.

Offering of food is normally not a done thing but I know priests who would just quietly ignore it when the Catholic is a member of a mixed family. Most would not join in the offering of food and I do not recall seeing it in any altar where the family is wholly Catholic.

For the record, Chinese (including non-Christian) do not pray to ancestors even if act looks like it and sometimes uses the terminology as such. It is largely a continuation of the filial piety expected of the children to the parents/grandparents/etc that carries on even after death. As such, it is largely a Confucianist practice rather than religious.

That really is the crux of the matter. Chinese Catholicism have studied the matter in depth over the centuries to differentiate which practice is religious in nature and which is cultural in nature. The latter is accepted and the former is rejected. I hope the rest of the Catholic Church can accept that we know what we are doing.

It is one of the things that make the Church truly Catholic. Protestants generally do not allow any such practices, not having the Catholic outlook and usually just follow whatever their leaders in the West tells them.

It is my understanding that the Jesuits had the Chinese Emperor (and thus the nation) on the verge of conversion, but couldn’t get this explanation of ancestor “worship” clear to him, and the emperor wouldn’t convert if it meant turning his back on his ancestors.

Now that would have led to a radically different world than the one we know . . .



Yes, it was. In a way modern Catholic thinking of inculturation started in China. The Chinese emperor was actually very close to Catholicism, close enough indeed to intervene in the Chinese Rites affair. The Chinese emperor in fact wrote to the Pope to ask him to reconsider the ban on saying the Liturgy of the Hours in Chinese.

The Jesuits were already far ahead of their times in those days, to dress up like Chinese and adopt Chinese language and customs. They were honoured guests of the Chinese emperor who always looked forward to the gifts that the Jesuits brought - and this was in an age when the Chinese considered they have no need of anything from foreign barbarians. That’s why Chinese never had colonies - what’s the point when foreigners have nothing to contribute to China.

Still it took quite some few more centuries for us to clarify the issue of ancestor worship. The Chinese have always been open to Christianity. Before the Jesuits, the Nestorians even had a bishop in Beijing. And one can see today how much today’s Chinese take to Christianity. But in a perverse way too - the bloodiest civil war in history was the Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China, started by a man who thought he was the younger brother of Jesus.

Yes, given the ease Christianity fit into Chinese culture, I often thought how different the story of my people would have been if the Jesuits have succeeded. And the story of Catholicism too - maybe inculturation and the realisation of the world-wide nature of the Catholicism (and maybe Vatican 2 as well) would have come two centuries earlier.

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