Prayer for souls in purgatory: a forgotten work of mercy

All Souls’ Day is an opportunity of mercy because it offers us a reminder to pray for the dead and through our prayers and sacrifices, bring them closer to heaven. It is also a time to recall that, contrary to popular sentiment, not everyone goes to heaven. This idea is not found in Jesus’ teachings or in the long tradition of the Church.

Since All Souls’ Day took place this past Saturday, and the Church sets aside the month of November to pray for the dead, I am dedicating this week’s column to encouraging people to go beyond remembering the dead and to actually pray for them. Specifically, we should pray for those souls who are undergoing purification in purgatory in preparation for entering God’s presence.

Before I reflect on the role our prayers have in helping souls not yet in heaven, I think it is worth spending some time discussing purgatory.

The Church traditionally refers to death, judgment, heaven and hell as the “four last things.” Every soul goes through the first two experiences and then goes to either heaven or hell. But some souls who are destined for eternal life with God must first be completely purified; and the Church teaches the place of purification is purgatory.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (No. 1030).

In other words, God in his mercy allows some souls to enter into eternal union with him once they have been purified so they are no longer attached to sin and are not suffering from the effects of sins that have already been forgiven.

Although many people do not realize it, every sin wounds our relationship with God and comes with consequences. So even though those sins may have been forgiven in confession, their consequences, such as having a greater inclination toward that sin, must be addressed.

Once a soul is purified in purgatory, this baggage is gone and they are able to love as God loves.

This is where our prayers for the dead make a difference, because the time in which our loved ones are able to work out their salvation on earth has passed. When we pray for the dead, we engage in a spiritual work of mercy.

It is also a practice that is rooted in Scripture and the tradition of the Church. In 2 Maccabees 12:46 we read: “Therefore (Judas Maccabeus) made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” I recommend that you read the passage, as it shows the beauty of compassion, mercy and prayer.

St. John Chrysostom, in a homily on 1 Corinthians 15:46 asks, “If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation?”

In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine remembers his mother dying and his brother expressing his concern to St. Monica that she would die outside of Rome, rather than in her native country in Africa. St. Monica looked at her sons, and said: “Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”

One saint that you can look to as an example and intercessor in praying for the departed is St. Nicholas of Tolentino. Throughout his priestly life, St. Nicholas prayed for the dead, especially when he celebrated Mass.

St. Nicholas traced his devotion to praying for the deceased to an experience he had one Saturday night. In his bedroom he had a vision of one of his fellow Augustinian friars who had passed away. This friar begged him to say Mass for his soul and others who were with him in purgatory, so that they would be able to enter heaven. Once St. Nicholas obtained his superior’s permission, he celebrated Mass for the next seven days for those souls. After the seventh Mass, the brother returned to him in a vision and expressed his gratitude, assuring St. Nicholas that he and many others had become pure and had entered heaven.

St. Nicholas’ devotion to praying for the dead resulted in Pope Leo XIII proclaiming him “Patron Saint of the Souls in Purgatory” in 1884.

We, too, should make praying for the dead a priority, since it is an act of mercy and love for those who can no longer purify themselves through their growth in the virtues here on earth. The Lord in his patience desires salvation for all and that we love as he loves.

I encourage you to seek indulgences, pray novenas, fast, make sacrifices and have Masses said for the deceased, especially for those who have no one to pray for them. These acts of charity will increase the love of God in your heart and soul and help those who have gone before us in death.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”