Have you ever feared being alone or forgotten? If so, know that this is extremely natural and that over one-third of people feel the same way. Now imagine enduring that loneliness for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s a thought that almost breaks your heart.
But what if you could alleviate that loneliness for someone? The Catholic Church teaches that you can.
On November 2, we celebrate All Souls’ Day. As Catholics, we believe that when people die, they go to heaven, hell, or purgatory. Purgatory is a place of purification, as no one who is imperfect and who has not atoned for their sins can enter heaven.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “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.”
Those who first go to purgatory will eventually get to heaven, and through our prayers, we can help them attain the necessary purification. Though we should regularly pray for souls in purgatory, All Souls’ Day is a day to officially remember them.
Some may ask where the teaching about purgatory comes from, and Bible scholars refer to both Old and New Testament books for the basis of this belief. For instance, in II Maccabees, Judas Maccabeus and his men prayed for those who had died in battle while wearing idols around their necks.
We read that Judas
took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. . . . If he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.
In Matthew, we read that Jesus taught this lesson in a parable: “Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.”
Church fathers have used this to explain the atonement many of us must do after our deaths.
We see further evidence of this in 1 Corinthians, where we read: “The work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.”
This teaching about God’s judgment after death helps us understand the necessity for purification. The work referred to in this passage is our actions—including our sins. And because fire is often used as a form of purification throughout the Bible, we realize that there must be a time after death to purify our souls—atoning for those sinful actions—so that we can spend eternity with God.
Though we don’t know what we will endure in purgatory, its existence is an immense blessing and a sign of God’s mercy, for we do know that those there will ultimately get to heaven. We also know that we can help those who are there waiting, and this should bring us great joy, as we can help in the salvation of our loved ones and even strangers who may be forgotten by those on earth and who have no one to pray for them.
In fact, praying for the dead is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
Praying is such an easy thing to do, and it’s so incredibly powerful. There is even a specific prayer for those in purgatory, and it takes just a few moments to recite.
But prayer isn’t the only way we help those in purgatory reach heaven.
We can also offer a Mass for them. Every time we go to Mass, we have the opportunity to offer it up for someone. We don’t have to make it the official Mass intention read by the lector; it can simply be something we tell God. We can say, “Today, I offer my Mass for a poor soul in purgatory” or “Today, I offer my Mass for my recently departed uncle.” According to the Shrine of Divine Mercy website, “The Church considers the Mass the greatest possible prayer of intercession because it is the perfect offering of Christ to the Father by making present the Paschal Mystery of His death and resurrection.”
We can fast for our loved ones who have died or for those we don’t know in purgatory. Fasting doesn’t necessarily have to be from food. It can be from TV or from social media or from something else we regularly take part in.
We can also offer up our sufferings—large or small or anywhere in between—for someone in purgatory. Next time you have a headache or some kind of physical or even mental pain, tell God that you’re offering up your suffering for someone in purgatory. This is a fantastic way to derive something good from something painful.
In addition to praying for the family and friends we have lost, we should also pray for someone who has been forgotten or who has no one to pray for them.
Adding prayers for souls in purgatory to your daily routine is really quite easy. Make it a point to add the Prayer for Poor Souls in Purgatory during family mealtime, while you’re driving to work, or even when you wash your hands. Let the souls in purgatory know that you have not forgotten them.
Just as we need the saints in heaven to pray for us while we are here on earth, those in purgatory need us to pray for them so they too can become saints in heaven.
This article first appeared in the Catholic World Report at catholicworldreport.com/2023/11/02/all-souls-day-reminds-us-to-pray-for-souls-in-purgatory.