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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.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).
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