As many Catholics know, the month of November is devoted to the holy souls in purgatory. All Souls Day takes place every year on November 2, yet we remember our loved ones that have gone before us in a special way through the entire month.
Holy Mother Church provides us with ample opportunity during this month with indulgences for the holy souls. But for Catholics, there are typically two main questions regarding the faithful departed. In regards to the first question, it’s often asked why we pray for the holy souls in the first place. But on the flipside, many are curious as to whether or not those that make up the Church Suffering can pray for us on earth, the Church Militant.
We know that we can pray for them, but why do we do so? Can they return the favor while they are still in purgatory, before they enter the Church Triumphant? In exploring these issues we’ll find ourselves more deeply connected to those that also make up the Body of Christ. The faithful departed do not stop being a part of the Body, even after physical death. This should bring us great comfort as we delve into what the Church teaches and permits in terms of belief on the subject.
Atonement for the Dead
In order to understand the second question, we must take a look at the first question. Why even bother to pray for the holy souls? Well, first and foremost, because Sacred Scripture tells us that doing so is highly laudable. In 2 Maccabees, we see Judas Maccabeus and his men come across the bodies of their fallen comrades from battle. To their dismay,
“under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jam′nia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen” (2 Maccabees 12:40).
Judas immediately acted and “turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out.” Now at this time, there were at least two schools of thought among the Jews. As we see in the Gospels, we had the Sadducees who rejected the resurrection of the dead. Not only that, but they also rejected things like the afterlife and angels, only accepting the Pentateuch as their sole rule of faith. We see Jesus himself denouncing them in Mark 12.
Judas Maccabeus, living about 160 years before Christ, did believe in the resurrection of the dead, and knew that his prayers could possibly be of aid to those who had passed from this earthly life. Holy Scripture relates the rest of this episode. Pay particular attention to the bolded:
“He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:43-45).
Mercy on the Deceased
Here we see why we have funeral Masses, and why each holy sacrifice of the Mass can be offered for the intention of our deceased loved ones. What’s truly beautiful is that Judas Maccabeus was doing this over a century before the Catholic Church was even founded. We plainly see how, as St. Augustine noted, what was hidden “under a veil in the Old Testament” has now been revealed in the New Covenant. We see in this passage that Judas provided for a “sin offering”.
During the Mass, particularly a funeral Mass, we offer up to the Father that perfect Victim, his son. We participate in that same sacrifice that took place at Calvary, and ask in a special way that the temporal punishments of the deceased be washed away so that they may enter heaven (For more on temporal punishment, see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1472-1473).
As we see in this selection from 2 Maccabees, we ask our Lord that our loved one be absolved from the stain of sin which remained on their soul after death. Far from being a “celebration of (earthly) life”, as the world would have us believe, a funeral Mass involves the prayers of the faithful interceding for the soul of the deceased. We do not know the eternal destination of our loved ones. No matter what anyone says to the contrary, no matter how “good” we may think such a person was, we simply don’t know. They may have gone straight to heaven, or taken a pit stop in purgatory, or been condemned to hell. Only God can judge the state of a person’s soul at death, and we trust in God that he may have mercy on the deceased.
Done on Behalf of the Dead
Take notice to what is said about Judas Maccabeus’ friends. He provided what was necessary for a sacrifice, just in case those that died “had gone to rest in godliness”. Now if these souls were in hell, the prayers would have no effect on them. The case would be similar if they had gone immediately to heaven. However, this would appear not to be the case, given the language of Scripture, since they died with graven idols in their tunics. But just in case they had still died in a state of grace, that is, “in godliness”, Judas Maccabeus ensured that he would help them along to eternal beatitude by offering his prayers. The Catechism elaborates:
“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.
“The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent…
“This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: ‘Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.’ 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. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC 1030-1032).
And what is it specifically that Sacred Scripture says about Judas Maccabeus’ act? “It was a holy and pious thought … in a very excellent and noble way.” What more do we need when the Word of God itself tells us that it is a good and noble thing to pray for the dead? In this month dedicated to the Poor Souls, we must make every effort to pray for them, and especially take advantage of the indulgences available to them and to us during the season.
Can the Poor Souls Pray for Us?
Now that we’ve explored this aspect of the Church’s understanding on the Church Suffering, we turn to the second question that often follows: can these souls in purgatory still pray for us? Can we ask for the intercession of the souls in purgatory as we would the saints in heaven?
We must first remember that there are three divisions that make up the Communion of Saints, as we mentioned above: the Church Triumphant (those in heaven), the Church Suffering (those in purgatory) and the Church Militant (those among the living on earth). What this means is that all three divisions are one in the Body of Christ. We are in communion with each other, even after death in this world. This is why we are able to ask for the intercession of the saints, as we often do in both private devotion and in public prayer such as the Mass. And of course, as we just covered, we can pray for the souls in purgatory (as can those in heaven), as those in the Church Suffering can no longer pray for themselves.
Once we die, we are unable to merit anything for ourselves. While we can make reparation for our own sins on earth, we can no longer do so once we die, exactly in the same way that we cannot repent after death. We must reconcile ourselves to God before death. This is why the Church Militant must pray for the Church Suffering, because the Poor Souls can no longer act on their own behalf. But does it follow that the souls in purgatory cannot pray for you and I on earth?
Intercession of Those in Purgatory
The Church has not ruled definitively on this matter. The faithful are allowed to have differing opinions one way or the other. St. Thomas Aquinas believed that, although the souls in purgatory “are above us on account of their impeccability”, they nonetheless “are not in a condition to pray” for those on earth. Other theologians and Doctors of the Church have disagreed with St. Thomas’ assessment. In the first place, St. Robert Bellarmine sees the souls in purgatory as being more than capable of praying for us, as they have greater love for God than we possibly can on this earth, given their close proximity to heaven, not to mention that they are ensured that they will enter heaven eventually. However, he denies that the Church Suffering are aware of our condition and circumstances on earth as the Church Triumphant are (De Purgatorio, Book 2, Chapter 15).
In response to both of these Doctors of the Church, yet another tossed his hat into the ring. His theological thought has been supported by many more saints since then, such as St. (Padre) Pio of Pietrelcina. Often called the “Most Zealous Doctor”, St. Alphonsus Liguori, after quoting a number of theologians who supported the belief, writes the following in the first chapter of his great work, Prayer: The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection. He poses the question on whether or not it is good to invoke the souls in purgatory. He answers:
“[W]e should piously believe that God manifests our prayer to those holy souls in order that they may pray for us; and that so the charitable interchange of mutual prayer may be kept up between them and us…
“[I]n this state they are well able to pray, as they are friends of God. If a father keeps a son whom he tenderly loves in confinement for some fault; if the son then is not in a state to pray for himself, is that any reason why he cannot pray for others? And may he not expect to obtain what he asks, knowing, as he does, his father’s affection for him? So the souls in purgatory, being beloved by God, and confirmed in grace, have absolutely no impediment to prevent them from praying for us.
“Still the Church does not invoke them, or implore their intercession, because ordinarily they have no cognizance of our prayers. But we may piously believe that God makes our prayers known to them; and then they, full of charity, most assuredly do not omit to pray for us. St. Catharine of Bologna, whenever she desired any favor, had recourse to the souls in purgatory, and was immediately heard. She even testified that by the intercession of the souls in purgatory she had obtained many graces which she had not been able to obtain by the intercession of the saints.”
A Holy and Pius Thought
While we may not invoke the souls in purgatory during the Church’s liturgy, we may have confidence that God manifests our intentions to them. This confidence can give us a fuller understanding of the communion of saints. We pray for them, and they pray for us. But what is most important to remember during this month of November, and really for every month of the year, is that we pray for the souls of the faithful departed. Later in the same work, St. Alphonsus really drives home the point:
“If we desire the aid of their prayers, it is but fair that we should mind to aid them with our prayers and good works. I said it is fair, but I should have said it is a Christian duty; for charity obliges us to succor our neighbor when he requires our aid, and we can help him without grievous inconvenience.”
The first week of November is crucial, but we can always offer up indulgences for the souls in purgatory. Once these souls enter heaven, and see God face to face, their prayers will be made even more efficacious.
If you haven’t made it a point to pray for the Poor Souls in the past, resolve to this year. We are still united to them through our common baptism, and though it is a great mystery, God through His mercy allows us to help them gain access to the beatific vision. The Communion of Saints is a wonderful thing. Let’s continue to aid our faithfully departed loved ones, as to do so is truly a “holy and pious thought”.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a twenty-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, Christ Is Our Hope.