-Part one of a two part series.
By: Jim Dunning
(This article was originally published in "Irelands Own" magazine on November 14, 2008. The webmaster would like to gratefully thank the author for his kind permission in reprinting it here.)
“It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” -2 Machabees 12:46
Many of us will remember hearing this exhortation when we were still young children learning our Catechism. We may have given it little thought since then, though we are reminded of it occasionally when relatives or friends die and we attend their funerals. We will regularly join with the priest and congregation at other times in reciting such prayers as ‘Eternal rest grant unto them , O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace, Amen.’ Something of a formula perhaps, too easily pronounced and too quickly forgotten.
A mistake many of us unwittingly make is to assume that our deceased loved ones must already be in Heaven. There is good reason to believe that many of the souls in Purgatory remain there long after we have ceased praying for them. They are not able to communicate with us, nor we with them, though records do exist of certain saints who have been privileged to make contact with departed souls still awaiting entry to Heaven. While all such souls have the joy of knowing they will ultimately achieve eternal happiness , they undergo considerable suffering while awaiting their release. Our prayers and sacrifices can help to lessen their pain and speed them on their way.
How do we know this? As mentioned above, contact with souls in Purgatory has been made by certain privileged saints who have provided accounts of their experiences. Accounts which we have every reason to believe. The Diary of Saint Faustina, a Polish nun who died at the age of 33 in 1938, and was canonised in the year 2000, contains remarkable reports of visits made by her to souls in Purgatory and of conversations she was privileged to have with them. When she asked what their suffering mainly consisted of, they told her that their greatest torment took the form of an earnest longing for God. At the same time she heard an interior voice saying “My mercy does not want this, but justice demands it.”
The concept of justice, as it applies to souls in Purgatory, is an important one. It seems that even though our sins have been forgiven, justice demands that we cannot enter Heaven until we have fully paid our debts. Saint Faustina stressed that the penance we are given when we go to confession is inadequate. She urged us to make a daily offering of our sufferings and trials on behalf of the poor souls in Purgatory and for our own souls in order to shorten our stay there.
In addition, people can make provision in their wills for Masses to be said for their souls after their death. Such bequests have the added advantage that they help to support certain religious communities which partly depend on funds made available in this way. Clearly one cannot rely entirely on these means as this would suggest that the rich have a great advantage over those less able to afford such contributions.
You will sometimes hear it said that the word ‘Purgatory’ is not to be found in Holy Scripture, and it is true that the word itself did not come into common use until the Middle Ages, but the doctrine whereby souls are detained prior to their entry into Heaven is proved by references to the dead in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Councils of Florence and of Trent and by Tradition.
An example of prayers being offered for the dead in the Old Testament is contained in the Book of Machabees, quoted above in the first paragraph. It was written long before the coming of Christ. We learn from it that Judas Machabeus, commander of the Jewish army, lost a large number of his soldiers in a successful battle against the Syrians. When these soldiers came to be buried, heathen charms were discovered under their tunics. It worried Judas to think that some of his soldiers had been unfaithful to the one true God. In an effort to beg pardon of God for their sins, he collected 12,000 drachms of silver and sent them to the temple in Jerusalem to have sacrifices offered for the dead soldiers, expressing the generally-held belief that ‘it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins’.
In the New Testament a declaration made by St. Paul in a letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3: 14-15) is generally taken to refer to what we now think of as Purgatory. It reads: ‘If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.’
Although souls are essentially spirits, theologians speak of Purgatory as a physical space in which the souls of those who have died in God’s grace but are still imperfectly purified, are kept until they have made good the harm done to their souls by sin. They are unable to go to Heaven immediately after death since nothing that is defiled can enter there. They cannot be in Hell either, for there is no redemption for souls unfortunate enough to have been consigned there after deliberately turning their backs on God. It follows that there must be a place or state in which souls have to wait while undergoing the purification necessary for their acceptance in Heaven.
If the temptation is to arrange for prayers and masses to be said only for our own souls, it should be remembered that we are constantly being urged and encouraged to pray for the Holy Souls in general. Pope John Paul II stated: ‘Giving the Holy Souls in Purgatory an indulgence is the highest act of supernatural charity.’ St. Thomas Aquinas said: ‘Of all prayers, the most meritorious, the most acceptable to God are prayers for the dead because they employ all the works of charity, both corporal and spiritual.’ Our Lady of Medjugorje, in her message of 21st July, 1982, lamented: ‘There is a large number of souls who have been in Purgatory for a long time because no one prays for them.’
St. Gertrude, when dying, was worried that she had given up all her good works to the souls in Purgatory, keeping none of the benefits for herself. Our Lord assured her in a vision that she would go straight to Heaven. Although none of us would presume to be so deserving, it seems reasonable to suppose that our generosity will be rewarded. St. Catherine of Bologna declared: ‘I received many and great favours from the saints, but still greater favours from the Holy Souls.’ It is claimed that Holy Souls, once released, never cease to pray for those who have helped them.
If the particular souls we are praying for are already in Heaven, there is no doubt that our prayers will be applied to benefit other souls. It has been said that there is no ungrateful soul in Heaven. A comforting thought.
Purgatory is defined by the Catholic Church as ‘a state of final purification after death and before entrance into Heaven for those who died in God’s friendship but were only imperfectly purified.’ Mention has been made of the suffering endured by the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Their pain is lessened however by several factors.
The first of these is the certainty they have of their future glory in Heaven; what might be called the light at the end of the tunnel. As St. Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans, this hope must bring the faithful great joy. Then there is their complete willingness to suffer, knowing that they deserve their punishment. Their love of God, perhaps newly found, causes them to rejoice in their suffering. While the souls of the lost are kept in the prison of Hell, those in Purgatory stay there willingly for they understand the just will of God and submit to it.
St. Catherine of Genoa wrote: ‘It seems to me there is no joy comparable to that of the pure souls in Purgatory, except the joy of heavenly beatitude.’ In his writings on Purgatory, Fr. Binet, S.J., states: ‘We have all the reason in the world to believe that God, of His infinite goodness, inspires these Holy Souls in a thousand heavenly lights, and such ravishing thoughts that they cannot but take themselves to be extremely happy.’
All of which is also most comforting. Nevertheless, for those anxious to limit the amount of time spent in Purgatory, even to avoid it altogether, there is always the legitimate prospect of obtaining indulgences.
Click here to go to part 2 of this article, "Receiving Indulgences"
-‘Purgatory and Heaven’ by Fr. J.P. Arendzen, D.D.
-‘Purgatory’ by Fr. Frederick William Faber