This week, as we remember All Souls Day and All Saints Day, we contemplate the journey to our eternal home in heaven and those souls who have gone before us.
By: Sr. Clare Hunter, F.S.E.
Though fiction (and certainly not the official Church teaching on souls in Purgatory), I was very touched by a scene in Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock. She tells of a French nun, Sister Catherine, who made it a point to pray for all of her neighbors who had died. She did not, however, pray for Marie, a reputed “great sinner” of the neighborhood, whose sins, being too great, ensured that she was lost to hell. Cather writes:
“One day, while [Sister Catherine] was at prayer, a soul from Purgatory appeared to her all pale and suffering.” Astonished by the vision, Sister Catherine asked for the soul’s identity and it was indeed the sinner Marie! Stunned that Marie was not in hell, Sister asked how it came to be that she was saved. Marie explained that she was saved by the “infinite mercy of the Blessed Virgin.” Marie, knowing that she was about to die, and sensing the burden of all of her sins, turned to the Mother of God and prayed: “Queen of Heaven, you are the last refuge of the ruined and the outcast; I am abandoned by all the world; I have no hope but you; you alone have power to reach where I am fallen; Mary, Mother of Jesus, have pity upon me!” Now saved from hell, and in Purgatory, Marie asked Sister Catherine to have three Masses offered for her soul, in reparation for her sins. Sister immediately arranges for the Masses to be said, and receives a final vision of Marie, a “happy soul, more brilliant than the sun,” thanking Sister Catherine and promising her prayers from heaven.
November 1 and 2 were two memorable days at Saint Stanislaus Catholic School in my hometown of Meriden, Connecticut. On November 1, the Feast of All Saints’ Day, the second-graders, dressed as saints and paraded through the school. I still remember “being” Saint Therese for the day – quite possibly an experience that seeded the idea of wearing a habit for the rest of my life. The following day, the feast of All Souls, the entire school walked one mile up the road to the parish cemetery. You can imagine the tremendous impact for a child to walk with 200 other students up to the cemetery, which is located atop a not so insignificant hill, to pray for souls in Purgatory. I have a feeling there are many parochial school graduates out there who can relate to these tangible, physical experiences that taught us of our need to pray through the saints and for the dead.
Praying through the intercession of the saints certainly seemed like a logical and attractive idea. These were men and women who had loved God, lived inspiring lives and modeled for us the way to heaven. How blessed I was to have teachers that encouraged me to have relationships with the saints, even to play “dress up” as a way of being like them. Praying for souls “trapped” in Purgatory, however, was much harder to comprehend. Yet, I recall those trips to the cemetery, and subsequent cemetery visits, as peaceful and joyful occasions in which my prayers and visits might help a soul in need.
Always, and especially throughout the month of November, the Catholic Church prays for all souls in Purgatory, that is those “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” (CCC 1030). Why the need for purification? We must remember that when we choose an act that is sinful, we have chosen to injure both our relationship with God and our own soul. Through sin, we have rendered ourselves incapable of an honest relationship with God – just as when we hurt a loved one and shatter trust. We must seek forgiveness to restore the relationship, and repair our souls.
Further, we know that our unhealthy attachments to earthly pleasures and sin are a constant battle, and because of our choices, we might not be ready to meet God and enter into the purity of heaven when we die.
By bearing our crosses, sufferings and trials with patience and endurance, we certainly know a form of purification, allowing us to participate in the sufferings of the Crucified Christ. Each time we receive the sacraments – especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation – perform acts of charity and kindness, make pilgrimages, offer sacrifices, fast and pray, we grow closer to becoming the saints God desires us to be. Because we may die without the opportunity for the soul to be prepared to meet God, we no longer have a body to perform such acts of purification, and so we are in need of help from those on earth who can offer them for us (cf. CCC 1032, 1472, 1473).
This November, let us remember to pray for those who have died and are in need of our prayers in order to live eternal life. Like Sister Catherine, may we never forget the power of our prayers and corporal works:
- Arrange for a Mass to be offered for soul of the departed
- Visit a cemetery and offering prayers
- Offer a sacrifice or fasting
- Pray a rosary, Divine Chaplet of Mercy or intercessory prayers for the departed
- Help someone in need
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