What is Purgatory and Why Does it Matter?
We honor and pray for the Holy Souls every year on November 2nd. Those in Purgatory are just as much a part of the Church as we are, and we’re certainly not limited to praying for them one day a year. But in this special month, the Church calls our attention toward the holy souls in Purgatory. There are many ways to pray for the holy souls, as well as some special ways unique to the month of November. Before we get started with how to pray for them, let’s get some background on Purgatory.
At the moment of death, each soul is judged by God. The soul will ultimately end up in one of two places: heaven or hell. Purgatory “is not a second chance. It is not a place the soul goes to get a do-over.” Rather, it is a step toward heaven, where the soul is purified from attachments to sin and the world, as well as purified from the temporal punishment due to sin.
Sin has two effects: an eternal punishment and a temporal punishment. The eternal punishment of sin is the effect of us offending God Who is perfectly good. This guilt we have due to offending God has been atoned for by Jesus and His sacrifice on Calvary. Temporal punishment is the resulting effect of sin on the Body of Christ. If I maliciously broke someone’s arm, I can seek forgiveness from them and from God. But that doesn’t mean the arm isn’t broken anymore! It still has to heal.
Purgatory runs along the same lines and directly addresses the temporal punishment. Our souls have to be purified and healed from sin before entering heaven, just like that broken arm has to heal. Fr. John Hardon, SJ explained that the holy souls had a “particular judgment that was favorable, although conditional: provided they are first cleansed to appear before God. The condition is always fulfilled.” Writings from the tradition of the Church often speak of the punishments of Purgatory. The word itself has no positive connotation in secular culture; by and large, punishments are always a bad thing. In the case of the holy souls, their punishments are inseparable from the justice of God. St. Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum doctrina emphasized that these “two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.” (quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church #1472) Sin requires healing.
The holy souls suffer in Purgatory—and the saints who have seen visions of Purgatory have shuddered at the sight—but their suffering is of a different quality than the suffering in hell. The souls in hell suffer from the eternal loss of God; the holy souls in Purgatory suffer in order to be unified with God. St. Faustina’s guardian angel took her to visit Purgatory, and she related the visit in her diary:
“I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves; only we can come to their aid. The flames which were burning them did not touch me at all. My Guardian Angel did not leave me for an instant. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God.”
While in Purgatory, the holy souls can’t merit any further graces for themselves. They can pray for us, however.
How to Pray for Them
We may speak to God in our hearts at any time of day, in any place, and in any season. Praying for the souls of our friends and loved ones doesn’t necessarily have to take a particular form—we can approach our loving Father in heaven and ask for the deliverance of the holy souls.
The Church in her wisdom also lays out practices of charity and piety for us to follow.
Offering of a Mass
It’s a customary practice among Catholics to have a Mass said for a loved one who has died. The Catechism reminds us that “from the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in sufferage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.” (Catechism #1032) What better to offer God on the behalf of a holy soul, than the Precious Body of Jesus?
Requesting a Mass for a deceased loved one is as easy as calling a local parish.
A special way to help the holy souls is through indulgences. Jesus gave great authority to St. Peter: that whatever was bound on earth would be bound in heaven. And, whatever was loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. That counts for indulgences too: the Church gives us on earth the opportunity to earn special graces by acts of piety (prayers, pilgrimages, and more) on certain feast days. The gaining of an indulgence is meant to benefit the recipient of it, but that’s not all. “The Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity.” (Catechism #1478) This is not a sterile bank transaction.
There are two types of indulgences, partial and plenary. Plenary indulgences remove all of the temporal punishment due to sin; partial indulgences remove a part of the temporal punishment. During the month of November, certain indulgences apply exclusively to the holy souls—not to the person obtaining them.
First, a partial indulgence can be gained for a holy soul by visiting a cemetery and praying for the departed.
Second, a plenary indulgence is available to those that visit a cemetery every day for nine days (Nov. 1-8).
Third, specifically on All Souls Day (Nov. 2), a plenary indulgence is granted with a pious visit to a church or a public oratory, saying one Our Father and the Creed.
Fourth, a short prayer can earn a partial indulgence for one or more of the holy souls. Saying the Eternal Rest prayer obtains a partial indulgence every time it is prayed:
“Eternal rest grant unto [him/her/them], O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May [his/her/their] soul[s] and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen”
In this simple prayer, we commend a soul to God and beg that His Divine Mercy shower upon him/her. The words are ancient and date back to the first few centuries of the Church. Have you found yourself unable to devote regular time to prayer? The Eternal Rest prayer takes about ten seconds to pray. Really! There isn’t a single person on earth who is so busy that they can’t spare ten seconds.
The Divine Mercy Novena & Chaplet
The usual time for the Divine Mercy Novena is during the Triduum and Easter season. It begins on Good Friday and ends in time for Divine Mercy Sunday (the Sunday after Easter). The novena can be said at any time of year, however. There’s a different intention for each day, and the eighth day’s intention is for the holy souls.
Jesus Himself urged St. Faustina to spread word about the Chaplet of Divine Mercy as an aid to the dying. Anyone who recites it is promised by Our Lord to receive great mercy at the hour of his/her death; the most hardened sinner who recites the chaplet would receive the mercy of Jesus. Any prayer we pray, we can direct toward others; intercessory prayer is probably the most common form of prayer (after winning lottery numbers). If the chaplet is intended to help the living ask for Divine Mercy, we can ask on behalf of our departed loved ones.
Aside from her Son, there is no greater advocate for the holy souls than Our Blessed Mother. She gave fifteen promises to St. Dominic regarding those that had a devotion to the rosary, and two of them applied to Purgatory. The fourth promised that the rosary could “obtain for souls the abundant mercy of God”, and the ninth promised Our Lady’s special intercession for holy souls who were devoted to the rosary.
These seem like small things. Why doesn’t God just do all the work Himself, in an instant? We don’t know the specifics of that answer, but there’s a clue in the coming of Jesus. Salvation is incarnational!
God has “tabernacled” Himself into the whole history of humanity. That is, He made His dwelling with us. When He created Adam & Eve, God walked with them in the garden. When they turned away from Him, God responded by binding Himself to humanity in covenants with Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses, and David. As humanity still turned away from God, He sent prophets to call the wayward back to Him. Then God literally dwelled with men and women; the intimacy among God and His people hit an unheard-of level when Jesus became man. The divine dwelling of God with humanity didn’t end with Jesus’ ascension into heaven; it continued in the receiving of the Holy Spirit through the Church.
Cast in that light, it is very fitting that God involves us in helping the holy souls in Purgatory. At the end of the liturgical year, the Church turns our gaze toward the afterlife. Remember those that have gone before us. Take some time this month to remember all the holy souls!