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Praying for the Holy Souls: The Soul You Help may be Your Own

“It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.”  2 Macc. 12:46

“There shall not enter into it anything defiled…” Apoc. 21:27

I lost my Dad in 1999.  He was a wonderful father and certainly considered by all to be a good man.  He and my Mom passed on their love of God and love of the Faith to me.  As a Catholic, I knew about Purgatory; that place or state where a soul which dies in God’s grace, but is not completely spotless must work off the punishment due to confessed sins and unconfessed venial sins.  While my Dad was a knight in shining armor to me, it was also probable, or at least possible, that he was doing time in Purgatory.  The thought that he may be suffering inspired in me the deep desire to relieve that suffering.    

Praying for the souls of the dead is a tradition which goes back to our Jewish heritage.  Judas Machebeus collected silver to send to Jerusalemto be offered for the sins of those fallen in battle.  He understood that nothing unclean or defiled could stand before God and therefore provided for the offerings for the souls of those who had died so that they could see God.  Readingof the Psalms bears out this understanding:  “Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? or who shall rest in thy holy hill?  He that walketh without blemish …” (Ps. 14:1-2).

Our Catholic heritage is no less rich in the existence of purgatory and the tradition of praying for the souls of our beloved departed.  Both the New Testament and Church Councils enlighten our understanding of purgatory.

The gospel of St. Matthew describes the parable of the unjust servant in which our Lord tells us that our debts must be paid. (“And his lord being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid all the debt” (Mt. 18:34). St. Paul says that we are saved only through fire (1 Cor. 3:15).  St. Peter likens our trials to gold being tested by fire (1 Peter 1:7).

The councils of Lyons II (1274 A.D.), Florence (1439 A.D.), and Trent (1563 A.D.) reaffirmed earlier traditions in the Church of the existence and purpose of purgatory – that place where those who have departed in the love of God but before complete satisfaction has been made for their sins may be purged in order that they can approach God unblemished.  Further, the custom and tradition of the Church Militant (the faithful left here on earth) of praying, sacrificing, and giving alms on behalf of those souls in purgatory to make satisfaction for their sins and thus to shorten their time of purging, was reaffirmed by these councils also.

 Purgatory is truly a grace of God because it is the nature of God which demands that those approaching be unblemished, and thus without purgatory, many would never reach Heaven.  St. Catherine of Genoawrote that the soul, upon death, finally free of worldly attachments, is able to see itself as it really is; seeing the stains from its sins and desiring God, the soul throws itself into the fires of purgatory to be cleansed in preparation for the audience with God.

These holy souls in purgatory, the Church Suffering, cannot help themselves. The Church Triumphant (those who have entered into their Heavenly reward); the Church Suffering; and the Church Militant – these three are in reality one Communion of Saints.  As the Church Militant we ask the Church Triumphant to intercede for us before God; we offer our prayers, fasting, and almsgiving to aid the Church Suffering.  At every Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer, we pray for the souls of our departed loved ones, those gone before us “marked with the sign of faith.”

With all this Catholic tradition, however, it seems that prayers for the holy souls in purgatory have waned as a private devotion in recent years.  Funeral notices for Catholics rarely plead for Masses to be said for the departed.  The Truth that God is all-merciful has sometimes been distorted to exclude the notion of purgatory–even though this exclusion misrepresents the true nature of God and the true nature of God’s mercy.

So, how can we regain this sense of purgatory and help our suffering brethren?  First, we can begin by making a daily commitment to offer prayers and sacrifices for the holy souls.  For example, in our first prayer of the morning, remember to offer some of the work, joy and suffering of the day for the holy souls.  In the evening, traditionally, Psalm 129 (130) “De Profundus” (Out of the Depths) has been prayed for the Church Suffering.  Get your family involved; pray together for the holy souls in purgatory.  Mentioning specific loved ones to be remembered may make the prayer more meaningful for everyone.  In conjunction with our prayers, we can do a fast from something we enjoy at least one day a week (if not more often) for the holy souls. 

Finally, we can have Masses offered for our beloved deceased and those of our friends.  Every Catholic parish allows and encourages people to have Masses offered for the deceased.  Often a card is available to send to a loved one of the deceased, notifying them that a Mass is being offered.  An optional gift of $10-$15 is generally donated for the Mass card and as stipend for the priest offering theMass.

It is hoped that the simple exercise of remembering the holy souls in purgatory in our daily life, taking less than two minutes every day, will become a habitual and devout practice among the Church Militant so that the Church Suffering may be aided and granted their deepest longings.

This practice too, will help us advance in our own spiritual life.  Praying for the holy souls will aid us in contemplating more fully our own day of judgment, our own longing for God, and our devotion to the Holy Sacrifice of the altar.  The devout practice of prayer and sacrifice for the holy souls focuses our attention on our own sinfulness and on our own need for God’s mercy.  This act of charity for our suffering brethren will help us to become less selfish and more detached from the worldliness around us.  The more we love, the more we have the capacity to accept God’s love for us. 

Since the practice of praying for the souls in purgatory has slowed, many, many souls are waiting and longing for God; with no help coming from us.  We must begin to meet our obligations to the faithful departed.  There are so many waiting for their eternal reward.  Someday we ourselves may be waiting in Purgatory, and we’ll wish we had taught and encouraged those around us to pray for the holy souls.  Why don’t we start today?

By praying for these souls that long for God, may our own longing for God be increased.


Jim Curley writes frequently about Catholic life, culture, and other topics on his blog at http://bethunecatholic.blogspot.com.  He and his wife Lorelei have 7 children, and together they raise hogs, milk cows, grow peanuts and homeschool in rural South Carolina.


  • Mary Kochan

    Help me welcome Jim Curley to Catholic Lane — great article and we will be hearing more from Jim soon.

  • goral

    A warm welcome, Jim, no pun intended.
    My K. of C. Council has started a tradition of lumenaria in our cluster of parishes. This is the final weekend that we sell white bags to be illuminated with tealight candles on the church steps.
    The names of deceased friends and family are written on the bag with a bold marker. The sand and the candle is placed inside and lit on All Souls Eve.
    People going to church can see this beautiful display and remember the souls with names.

  • http://www.schefter.org PrairieHawk

    Our efforts at the time of death of a loved one can also provide him or her with the graces needed to go straight to Heaven. When my Grandmother (my mother’s mother) and my Grandfather (my father’s father) died, I made sure that a priest visited them on their deathbeds and gave them Holy Anointing (which communicates the forgiveness of sins), the Viaticum (final Eucharist, “food for the journey”), and the Apostolic Pardon (which confers a plenary indulgence, or remission of the temporal punishment due for our sins, which is the reason we end up in Purgatory).

    Any priest should offer all three of these interventions on his own, but I like to ask in order to be certain. Besides helping greatly the one who is undertaking their final journey, they offer great peace of soul to those left behind.

  • Lithloren

    Hi Jim,

    Thank you for your wonderful article. I am so sorry about the loss of your father. May he rest in Peace.

    I have recently learned about the need to pray for the Holy Souls. In your article you stated,

    “For example, in our first prayer of the morning, remember to offer some of the work, joy and suffering of the day for the holy souls.”

    I understand the part of offering my suffering, but am not sure on how to offer my work or joy.

    I read in a book about Maria Simma where she stated,

    “Even washing the kitchen floor when one doesn’t really feel like it, but one does it anyway out of love for the Poor Souls in general or out of love for a particular Poor Soul, will greatly help them go on their way. In the case of the kitchen floor, it will help someone, who during life neglected to keep the house in good order for the family.”

    Is that what you meant by work?

  • http://www.bethunecatholic.blogspot.com Jim Curley

    Thanks for the welcome and the comments.

    Lithloren: The work you offer may be work you would rather not do as you described, but also could be work you love.

    Think about it this way: if you are making a meal for someone (a parent, a child, a friend, a sick neighbor), even if you absolutely love to cook, you are still making the meal out of love for that someone. It may take more love if you absolutely hate to cook, but either way you are making the meal out of love.

    In the same way you can offer work and play and joy by doing whatever you are doing charitably and to the best of your ability for God, which you can offer for a special intention like for the holy souls. Whether it be pain or joy, it is meritorious to offer it to God. God doesn’t just want our pain, He wants all of our life.

    If you live in God’s presence, that is always remembering He is there, (easier said than done), you will be offering all you do to Him.

    In Christ,

    Jim

    • Lithloren

      Jim,

      Thank you for your great explanation!

      Lithloren

  • noelfitz

    Jim,
    welcome here and congratulations on a very sound article, which represents solid, traditional Catholic thinking.

    I agree fully with everything you wrote in it.

    Recently here in Ireland instead of having a requiem mass for the repose of the soul of a recently departed we have a mass to celebrate the life of one who has passed on.

    However in our church we have a nice custom where the names of all those who died during the last year are placed in a basket placed in front of the altar during November.

    I read your blog http://bethunecatholic.blogspot.com/ and I am impressed with what you are trying to do and the emphasis on subsidiarity, but I am not sure if protectionism and isolationism are the best means of creating financial and social stability.

  • Tarheel

    Wow. As I read this I thought ‘I’ was writing the lad in or opening lines. My father died in 1999 also. My ‘natural’ or birth mom had passed on a few years earlier but “Mom” (my step mom) passed away a few years ago. My dad passed onto to me a love of God. But I didn’t “listen” until I was in my 40′s. My dad wasn’t Catholic. He was a Southern Baptist. He was a christian. He had trouble with my conversion and the Catholic faith in general. I miss my dad.

    Sometime at our Men of St Joseph meeting I had to lead the discussion about purgatory. As I studied for this and read in the catechism about purgatory I learned that purgatory is not a “bad” place in the sense we are condemned to be there. Rather it is a place to be cleansed so we can enter heaven and our loved ones and friends can help us in our cleansing so tat we can enter heaven. This is a wonderful expression of love.

    And as a convert and I reflect on my past i say “Thank YOU!” for Purgatory. Purgatory may not be the greatest place to be but it is better than the “alternative”.

    Thanks for the wonderful article.