By Vir Christi
Halloween and the Solemnity of All Saints are well known to Catholics around the world. But just as important to us is the celebration tucked onto November 2nd after All Saints. This is the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, better known by the shorthand name of All Souls.
Why Do We Celebrate It?
The souls in Purgatory are not damned or denied the Beatific Vision. The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies Purgatory as the first destination of those who “die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified.” (CCC 1030) Purgatory is to Heaven what a mudroom essentially is to a house: a place for children to take off their filthy boots and coats, and perhaps have their shoes or feet wiped off before entering the home so as to not track mud into it. A robber would not be permitted to use the mudroom in the same way; likewise, someone who has completely rejected God’s friendship would have no use for Purgatory if they have no respect for God’s house (Heaven)!
The souls in Purgatory are there because they need to be cleansed of lingering attachments to things of this world in order to properly enter the joy of Heaven. Their hearts belong to God, but they are still attached to their sins. This would make them miserable if they went to Heaven! In His loving mercy, God allows for the existence of Purgatory so that these little souls who love Him can feel rightly prepared to come before Him for all eternity. And these souls rejoice that God has given them this opportunity to prepare themselves to come before Him.
As part of their spiritual cleansing, they have an important role: they pray for us! But they cannot pray for themselves. They must serve their sentence of purification before they can enter into the joy of Heaven, and they cannot pray themselves through that sentence faster. But we can pray to God on their behalf for them, which actively shortens the period of time they must spend in Purgatory.. This is why the Church insists on setting apart a particular day to begin the month of November to remember these poor souls, so that we never forget to pray for them as diligently as they pray for us.
How Do We Know It Exists?
The word “Purgatory” is never explicitly stated in Scripture. But just because the word itself is never used does not mean that it never gets discussed. Jesus Himself actually points to its existence.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers to His listeners the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35). After the first servant is forgiven his ridiculously large debt by the king, he proceeds to go and find a fellow servant who owes him a significantly smaller sum of money. The first servant violently demands of his fellow servant that the latter pay the small amount he owes; when the latter cannot, and begs an extension on the payment of the debt, the first servant disregards his pleas and tries to wring the money out of him. The king is enraged when he hears of it, and has the first servant seized.
Jesus uses an interesting phrase in the parable: “…his lord handed him [the first servant] over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:34) Jesus specifically states that the parable is being used as a comparison for the Kingdom of Heaven. We know that this allegory is not referring to Heaven itself, because there is no suffering in Heaven. We also know that it cannot be referring to Hell, because Hell is an eternal punishment; once a soul enters Hell, there is no escape, it is damned for all eternity. The place in question suggests relief once a debt has been paid. By logic, the only place this can be is Purgatory.
When Jesus talks about the sin against the Holy Spirit, He says, “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32) By the age to come, Jesus is referring specifically to the life to come after this one. We know He is not referring to Heaven, because those in Heaven have no need for the forgiveness of their sins. We also know He is not referring to Hell, because the damned have rejected God entirely and the forgiveness of sins does them no good. The only place where the forgiveness of sins is an ongoing process in the next life is Purgatory.
Purgatory is Tough Love, But It Is Love
Purgatory is not an enjoyable experience. Purgatory is a cleansing fire, burning away our attachments to the things of the world and clearing the ground of our hearts in preparation to receive the glory of the Beatific Vision.
The souls in Purgatory cannot help themselves. What that means is that when they are praying for us, they are not doing so out of any selfish desire or ulterior motive. It is an act of pure love, in the midst of the agonies of letting go of the things of this world. Each of us should be so lucky as to have loved ones who remember us in this world after we pass into eternity. But every day, someone in your life passes away who has no one to pray for them but you. No one thinks about them but you. That means that your prayers could be the difference between them spending a day versus one hundred years in Purgatory!
God’s love is in Purgatory, burning away the attachments of the holy souls there in preparation for them to fully enter into His Presence. All Souls is not just us remembering that there are people in Purgatory, but is Our Lord’s invitation to see the love that those souls have for all of us, and to respond generously to that love by praying for them to be released into the eternal joy of Heaven.
How Should We Remember the Souls in Purgatory?
It benefits us tremendously to pray for these poor souls. For starters, when one prays with an eye towards a charitable gift such as releasing a soul from Purgatory, it increases virtue in us. Charity is infused through all of the virtues, so every time we engage in this act of mercy of praying for the souls in Purgatory it prepares us for Heaven. Second, think of a time someone helped you out of a bit of a tough spot, and them helping you put you in an amazing position. Imagine how grateful you felt. Now multiply that by countless thousands, and you understand how joyful a soul being taken into Heaven from Purgatory must feel!
Okay, you might be saying. Praying for the souls in Purgatory is a good thing, and I want to help them. So how does one go about it? Fortunately, there are several tangible ways we can help the poor souls.
Going to Mass is obviously a good start; because Mass is the union of Heaven and Earth, it binds together the living and the dead and allows us to join our prayers with those of the saints for the poor souls in Purgatory. But there are plenty of other ways to remember those in Purgatory, even if you cannot make it to Mass that day.
November is an entire month dedicated to the Holy Souls, so use All Souls’ Day as the first of many trips in the month to a cemetery near where you are. For the first eight days of the month of November, you can gain a plenary indulgence by visiting a cemetery and praying devoutly for the souls in Purgatory. This indulgence is directly applied to a soul in Purgatory, which means that the remaining time of their purification in Purgatory is partially or fully concluded and they are released into the arms of Our Lord in Heaven! For the remaining days of November, that indulgence is only partial, but some help is better than none at all.
Second, every day during the month, think of a loved one who died. Some of our loved ones have made it to Heaven, but Pope Benedict XVI privately believed that most people who have died are in Purgatory. Because we all struggle with attachments to sin and particular things in this world, the overwhelming majority of us need to be purified after leaving this life before being ready to stand eternally in Heaven. While we cannot know the final disposition of souls that leave this world, there is a respectable chance that your loved one is in Purgatory, waiting to enter Heaven. Quietly pray the Requiem Prayer for a loved one who has died, every day, as this is another partial indulgence you can gain for them.
Finally, remember your own death. All of us will be called from this world into the next, to stand before God’s judgment. Offer a little prayer of thanks every day for the justice of the Judge, for the many opportunities of mercy He has given you and will continue to give you, and resolve in that prayer to make the most of every day He gives you to the best of your ability with His help.
Vir’s heart has been on fire for the Church from day one, and he dreams of the day when Constantinople will be a city again. He has a competitive drive satiated by sports and board games, but is also just as happy to sit down and read a good book for hours on end.