On this Feast of All Souls, Cassandra Spellman discusses the Catholic teaching on Purgatory and how we can help our deceased loved ones.
Our children like to play a game where they dump as many toys as possible onto the floor. I knew they were in the midst of this game one day when I overheard our son say, “Mom’s not going to like this.”
Indeed I didn’t. I entered the bedroom to find the floor scattered with dinosaurs, duplos blocks, and game pieces.
I was — justifiably — angry. The children know that intentionally making a mess is wrong. They promptly apologized and I forgave them, of course.
But that wasn’t the end of the story because the mess remained.
A Mess in Our Souls
Something similar happens in our souls.
When we go to the sacrament of Confession, God always forgives us our sins, removing eternal punishment and restoring our relationship with Him. But, like the mess in the bedroom, sin leaves a kind of mess in our souls.
We may have a lingering tendency to commit the same transgression. Sins leave the soul lacking in love. Also, there is a need for correction. I forgave our children for the mess they made, but they had a punishment: clean it up! Similarly, as God’s children, we receive temporal punishment for our sins. We also need to be corrected through punishment when we willingly and knowingly disobey our Father.
We all need purification. The question is: when will we be purified? Sometimes it happens in this life; other times, it’s in the next.
All Saints and All Souls
On November 1 we celebrate All Saints Day, thanking God for our friends in heaven (the Church Triumphant). The saints are our heroes: they’ve won the race and now cheer us on. They have been purified: there is no mess in their souls!
If you look at the lives of the saints, you’ll find a common theme running through their varied stories: suffering. They united their suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross. They allowed that suffering to purify them. That suffering made them saints!
They chose to be purified now, here, on earth. Through suffering they became detached from all sin and made reparation for any damage caused by their previous sins. Thus their love for God was so pure that, at the moment of their death, they entered directly into heaven.
Then we come to November 2: All Souls Day. This is the day when we especially pray for the souls who were not fully purified here on earth: the souls in Purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that Purgatory is a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” As the book of Revelation says of heaven, “nothing unclean will enter it” (21:27).
God’s Hospital for Souls
Purgatory is God's hospital for souls. A patient in a hospital realizes that he or she is sick and needs a cure. He or she recognizes that a cure will come only through suffering — surgery or a medical procedure. The infirm person willingly proceeds with the suffering, knowing that it is for his or her ultimate good and in hope for full health one day.
Similarly, the souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering) await the ultimate cure: the bliss that is the Beatific Vision. Father Benedict Groeschel writes in his book After This Life, referring to sinfulness, that Purgatory “heals it, cleansing the human soul, gently and lovingly making us into the beings God wants us to be.”
Joyfully, Purgatory has just one exit door and that is to heaven. But until the purification is complete, the soul will experience a suffering "more painful than anything a man can suffer in this life" (St. Augustine). The souls in Purgatory suffer because they see so clearly the evil of their sins and sin's effects.
While being purified, these holy souls in Purgatory cannot earn merit for good works: they cannot hasten their entrance into heaven.
We Need to Help
We all have loved ones who have died. Don't assume that they are definitely in heaven already, because if they are in Purgatory, they need your prayers! Offering God your suffering, prayers, work, and difficulties for the souls in Purgatory is a way to show these departed ones your love.
My own family has gotten into the habit of praying for the souls in Purgatory immediately after we say our grace before each meal. We pray: “And may the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
Consider having a Mass offered for someone who has died. Mass is the highest form of prayer and worship here on earth, so there are many graces that flow from this practice. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “From the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.”
We can (and should) remember the souls in Purgatory every day, but most especially now, in the days following All Soul's Day.
Each day from November 1 until November 9 we can gain a plenary indulgence for a soul in Purgatory. An indulgence is the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. The Church has an infinite treasury of merit (good works) “stored” up, so to speak. These merits are from Christ’s Passion and death, as well as the good works of our Blessed Mother and the saints.
So an indulgence is the exchange of spiritual goods from the treasury of the Church to a particular soul — in this case, the indulgence could be applied to a soul in Purgatory. A plenary indulgence is extremely powerful: it removes all temporal punishment due to sin, allowing a soul in Purgatory to go to heaven!
In order to obtain this plenary indulgence, one must:
- Visit a cemetery (any cemetery will do; it need not be the one where your loved one is buried).
- Say a prayer for the particular soul for whom you wish to gain the indulgence.
- Attend Mass the same day (and receive Holy Communion).
- Go to confession within 20 days of the cemetery visit.
- Have a spirit of detachment from all sin.
- Pray an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the intentions of the Pope.
These souls in Purgatory will be so grateful for your prayers! As Venerable Fulton Sheen said,
As we enter Heaven, we will see so many of them, coming towards us and thanking us. We will ask who they are and they will say: "A poor soul you prayed for in Purgatory!”
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Copyright 2021 Cassandra Spellman
Images: Canva Pro; "St. Teresa of Avila Interceding for Souls in Purgatory" by Peter Paul Rubens (1633), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain
About the Author
Cassandra Spellman is grateful to God for the gift of her Catholic faith and her vocation as wife and mother. She and her husband co-wrote a Christian dystopian novel, In the Shadows of Freedom, which they recently published. They blog about faith, marriage, philosophy, and literature at SpellmanBooks.com.