As we celebrate the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day) today, we reflect on the need to pray for the souls in Purgatory.
By: Trish Diewald, Staff Spotlight
Today’s All Souls Day, when we remember the faithful departed, the souls in Purgatory. We know that Purgatory is the “backup plan” for those who need to be purified of whatever remains of sin and its effects. Yet we often speak of the dead in a way that betrays a forgetfulness of the reality of Purgatory: “I’m so glad Grandma’s suffering is over.” “Uncle Phil’s with the angels now.” “How can we be sad when Jane is in heaven?”
In reality, however, most souls bound for heaven will need a sojourn in Purgatory, so we do the departed a disservice if we declare their suffering over or presume their swift entry into heaven, because this ignores them in a time of great need. Purgatory is a place of great joy, but also very great suffering, and it is with good reason that we refer to those in Purgatory as the “Poor Souls” and the “Church Suffering.”
Suffering? Really? Isn’t God cruel to inflict punishment on the Poor Souls needlessly? Can’t He just let them into heaven if they’re going there anyway? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that they have died “in God’s grace and friendship,” so why would God allow His friends to suffer even after death?
To answer that, I turn to Aristotle, who taught that there are three kinds of friendship. Two of these are imperfect: friendship of utility and friendship of pleasure, in which people only remain friends because they get something out of the friendship, and which will cease when what is gained ceases to be.
True friendship, on the other hand, is based on goodness; each is a friend to the other solely because that person is good. In this friendship, interests or situations can change, yet the friendship endures. What matters is that my friend is good, and our friendship increases proportionately with the goodness in of each of us—the better my friend is, the better I am, the better our friendship.
The Poor Souls are God’s friends, but imperfectly. Maybe they still love God’s gifts more than God Himself, or maybe they have some friendship of goodness with Him, but only to a degree. Heaven, however, is for perfect friendship. God is Goodness itself and wants our friendship to be the best, so He needs to improve us, to increase our goodness. Purgatory, then, is the state where, because we can no longer improve ourselves after death, our Good Friend finishes for us the work of making us perfect friends.
The suffering of the Poor Souls, I think, is the result of being made better but still being imperfect. The more the Lord perfects a soul, the more will it regret having once offended its Good Friend, and that sorrow is a source of suffering.
More importantly, though, becoming better increases a soul’s desire to be in the company of the Good Friend. And this seems to be the greatest suffering the Poor Souls endure: having the guarantee that you will someday enter heaven, yet having to wait for who knows how long; the longer you are there, the better and better a friend of the Lord you become, but precisely because you are a better friend, your longing for Him only intensifies the longer you must wait, so you feel the separation from Him most keenly—and you are no longer able to improve yourself, so all of this must be endured passively. What exquisite agony this must be!
Prayers and sacrifices offered for the Poor Souls, then, are the greatest gift we can give them. Let us never overlook their enormous suffering by presuming their residence in heaven or thinking their suffering over—indeed, their suffering in a sense is just beginning. And as they can no longer pray for themselves, they truly rely on our prayers.
The best way is to have Masses offered for your departed loved ones, particularly on the anniversary of their deaths. Aside from Mass, a time-honored way to pray for them is to add, “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace,” to your prayer before meals, seeking their eternal refreshment as you receive material refreshment. And don’t stop with just your loved ones; there are many souls in Purgatory without family who think to pray for them. Perhaps you could pray a rosary specifically for those Poor Souls who are the most forgotten. You might also consider making an offering for them of any time you spend in painful waiting—waiting while stuck in horrendous traffic, waiting for a delayed flight, waiting on a family member to get over an addiction, waiting for a friend to return from overseas duty, waiting on yourself to kick some vice you can’t seem to shake, waiting on an answer to a prayer God seems to have left unanswered.
There are many ways to pray for the Poor Souls. Whatever you choose, All Souls Day is a great opportunity to start the habit of keeping them in your intentions. They’re waiting for heaven, and they’re waiting for your prayers.
Trish Diewald serves as Administrative Assistant to the Bishop’s Delegate for Evangelization and Media.