Why You Should Pray for the Souls in Purgatory Every Day
During the month of November, we remember our departed loved ones in a special way. All Saints Day (Nov. 1) acclaims all the saints in heaven, and All Souls Day (Nov. 2) calls our attention to the souls of the faithful departed in Purgatory. Praying for the souls in Purgatory is sometimes cast in an antiquated, “we don’t do that anymore” sort of light. Whether we neglect the holy souls in that manner or out of ignorance, we do a disservice to our brothers and sisters in the Lord! First and foremost, we have to reeducate ourselves on Purgatory.
What is Purgatory?
Purgatory isn’t a place per se like Sacramento or Chicago. Rather, it is “the condition of souls which, at the moment of death, are in the state of grace, but which have not completely expiated their faults, nor attained the degree of purity necessary to enjoy the vision of God” (Purgatory: Explained by the Lives and Legends of the Saints, Fr. F. X. Schouppe, S.J., p. 6). Purgatory is not a second-tier heaven or a divine participation award for those that didn’t achieve great holiness. There are only two destinations in eternity: heaven and hell. Purgatory is only temporary—and once every soul in it has left for heaven, Purgatory will cease to exist. Its goal is the communion of the Holy Trinity, and every soul there has heaven as his/her destination. In a way unknown to us, the souls in Purgatory simultaneously experience tribulations and joy. “Their bliss is not that of heaven, where joys are unmixed; their torments are not those of hell, where suffering is unremitting” (The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life, Fr. Charles Arminjon, p. 42).
A common critique on the part of many Protestants is that Purgatory renders the grace of God insufficient to forgive sins and remit punishment. Was Christ’s redemptive work defective? Doesn’t sin disappear when God forgives it? Purgatory doesn’t fit in Protestant soteriology, and the roots of their objections are deep in the debates over sola fide (that man is saved by faith alone) and sola scriptura (that everything believed has to be found in the Bible). Those arguments have been taken up many times over, and go too far beyond our discussion here.
Still, it’s important to know the reasons why Catholics believe what we do. Theologically, the case for Purgatory hinges on the nature of sin and its two effects. First, sin is an offense against God and carries with it eternal consequences. Nothing on our part can make up for this; Christ did what we could not, and His sacrifice of Himself accomplished once and for all our redemption (cf. Rom 6:10). In that sense, Catholics definitely don’t see Christ’s work as defective or insufficient. The second effect of sin is a temporal one; a black eye remains after a punch, even if the punch is forgiven. When most people die, they frequently have lingering wounds from sin, injuries to others caused by their sin, and attachments to venial sins. Those are examples of the temporal effects of sin—as opposed to the eternal effect of sin that Jesus has saved us from—that Purgatory burns away, if any remain at the hour of death. The purifying is necessary, for no soul can enter into communion with God without being cleansed; nothing unclean shall enter heaven (see Rev 21:27). In other words, Purgatory is a mercy that God grants us in His divine compassion, so that we may enter Heaven. We don’t have to wait until the afterlife to start this cleansing, though. Almsgiving, works of mercy, prayers, suffering, and indulgences while on earth can contribute to the lessening of the temporal punishment of sin, either for ourselves or others.
In addition to those doctrinal facts, we have to turn to the Communion of Saints to fill in the rest of the picture. “Behind the practice stands the Church’s faith in the communion of saints and the capacity for mutual assistance between members of the Mystical Body, whether still on earth or already in the life beyond the grave” (The Catholic Catechism, Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., p. 275). The Catholic Church divides into three sections, while still maintaining its essential unity: the Church Militant (those of us still on earth), the Church Suffering (those in purgatory, awaiting final beatitude), and the Church Triumphant (those already in union with God in heaven). These seem to be three disparate parts, but all are united in the Mystical Body of Christ. Within the Body, the power of intercessory prayer constantly flows among the three parts and different members—our common baptism and the unifying power of the Holy Spirit make that possible. St. Paul reminds the Ephesians that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:5-6). Our union is grounded in the Holy Trinity, whether it’s among the people of God here on earth or our favorite saints in heaven. Mysteriously, God has worked with man to be a part of His saving work; interceding for others in prayer is a key part of that. That is why we pray for our friends when they experience difficult times. That is why God uses the intercession of saints to work miracles on earth. And, that is why we pray for the souls in Purgatory.
Biblical Support of Praying for the Dead
The practice of praying for the souls of the departed is very ancient. It originates in the Old Testament, most famously in 2 Maccabees 12:
“And they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out... He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (v. 40-46).
Intercession on behalf of the dead wasn’t a Catholic invention; it’s been a practice of families for centuries. Additionally, the practice is “holy and pious” rather than a simple devotion.
Two New Testament passages point to Purgatory. The first is Matt 12:32, where Jesus teaches that “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” The mention of forgiveness in the age to come points to expiation being possible after death. But what does this look like? St. Paul answers that:
“each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:13-15).
The early Church maintained the belief in the efficacy of praying for the souls of the dead, giving testimony to the practice. Patristic evidence for praying for the souls in Purgatory comes from the Acts of Paul & Thecla (2nd century), the martyrdom of Sts. Felicity & Perpetua (turn of the 3rd century), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (3rd Century), St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th century), St. Augustine (5th century), and more down through the ages.
In brief, Purgatory comes from Church doctrine but also the witness of the Church since its beginning. It’s not an optional belief for Catholics because it comes from the deposit of faith. The Church has held fast to the practice, defending it in ecumenical councils (especially Trent), all the way to our present day.
How to Integrate Prayer for the Holy Souls into your life
Looking at Purgatory as a cleansing fire may inspire fear. Although it’s foreign to the secular culture, we need a healthy fear regarding matters of faith. Ideally, reflecting on the refining fire will impel us toward two ends. First, to “animate us with a charitable compassion towards the poor sufferings souls,” and then to fill us “with a vigilant zeal for our own spiritual welfare” (Schouppe, p. 5). The beauty of praying for the souls in Purgatory is the accessibility. Many saints have written prayers that anyone can say. When we encounter suffering and have that voice of our grandmother in our head—“Offer it up!”—make a quick prayer to offer that particular suffering for the souls in Purgatory. Take advantage of suffering!
We lead busy lives, and keeping up with our obligations to work and family are often enough to fill our time. And, our prayers usually focus on those things right in front of us. Something more abstract like Purgatory can be more difficult to call to mind than troubles at work or an ailing family member. It’s easier to focus on the souls in Purgatory by moving from an abstract concept to specific memories of our departed relatives and loved ones. Praying with pictures and holy cards can help focus our spiritual efforts. Visiting a cemetery to pray for the dead is also recommended.
Two of the most traditional ways to pray for the souls of the dead are offering Masses for them and obtaining indulgences to apply to them. Mass is usually said at least once a day in parishes around the world, and often for a particular intention. Nearly every parish has a process for getting a Mass said. A donation is customary but not required. A variety of indulgences abound in November surrounding All Souls Day. Besides those seasonal ones, there are indulgences we can obtain any day of the year, for reading Scripture, adoring Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and making the stations of the cross. Before the end of the Year of Mercy, there are unique indulgences offered for corporal & spiritual works of mercy, as well as going on pilgrimage to a Holy Door.
Praying for the souls in Purgatory goes right in step with the Divine Mercy. One of the teachings that St. Faustina passed on from Our Lord was to pray at 3:00 p.m. for sinners. “For at that moment mercy was opened wide on every soul” (The Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul, #1320). Sinners everywhere, whether on earth or in Purgatory, would benefit from our prayers. No matter if we’re at home, at work, or in the car, we can all spare a few minutes to pray when the clock strikes three. For those that are able, praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy is even better.
Praying for the souls in Purgatory has benefits beyond those that apply to the holy souls. It’s a great exercise in charity, which can only benefit the intercessor. On top of that, we win friends in heaven: “The dead will not be thankless. One day, freed from their torments by our solicitude, they will help us by their powerful intercession, and, when we fly up toward the heavenly fatherland, they will accompany us in procession.” (Arminjon, p. 166).
The liturgical year winds down in November, and the cycles of readings give us scriptures relating to the apocalypse, our judgment, and other things that draw our attention to the world beyond this life. The feast of All Saints plays in harmony with that theme. Let us remember in prayer all those who have gone before us!