November is the month when we remember the Holy Souls in purgatory. The Church calls on us to pray and offer ‘suffrages’ or prayers for the Holy Souls who have died in God’s grace but require final purification before entering Heaven. Over the centuries, countless Saints have called on the faithful to pray for these Holy Souls as a supreme act of charity towards our loved ones who have passed from this life or that multitude of unknown souls who have no-one to pray for them.
Upon death, the souls who are not perfect choose a final purification before they enter Heaven. St Catherine of Genoa explained that “the soul presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God.” (Vita Mirabile, 177r) Therefore, the soul voluntarily undertakes a purification so that they can attain the beatific vision in the Communion of Saints. The place of this purification is known as purgatory. St Catherine taught that in purgatory the souls have the immense joy of knowing that they will one day be with the Lord whilst at the same time they suffer the pains of their purification.
A sweet exchange between heaven and earth!
The holy souls, unable to help themselves, rely on the prayers of the Church – our prayers and sufferings – to shorten their time of purification or their journey to eternal beatitude. St Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “the prayers for the dead are most acceptable to God because the dead have need of them and cannot help themselves as the living can.” On the one hand there is the dependence of the Holy Souls on our prayers. This builds up the Kingdom of God in heaven as greater numbers of souls enter eternal beatitude. The ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ are in the hands of the faithful members of the Church who can open paradise by praying for these souls. We should continue to pray for them even though we do not know if they are still in purgatory or have ascended into heaven knowing that, in the economy of Salvation, the Lord will distribute the benefits of our prayers.. On the other hand, St Thomas teaches us that the holy souls can pray for their loved ones on earth whilst, unless God permits it, not knowing their concrete needs. (cfr. St Thomas, Summa Theologiae, 1, q.89) In fact, the souls in purgatory are very effective in assisting us in our needs and intentions. St Teresa of Avila said, “I never asked graces from the souls in purgatory without being heard. In fact, the graces I could not gain from other heavenly spirits, I obtained from the souls in purgatory.” There is a sweet exchange of charity between heaven and earth with each part helping the other to attain Salvation! Indeed, thought of in this way we can see that the members of the Church are called to participate in Christ’s mission of Salvation and to take on His sentiments towards these Holy Souls.
Do not forget to pray for the dead
In the fifth century, St John Chrysostom highlighted the importance of prayers for deceased loved ones above the usual funeral considerations. He made the point that “external shows are a relief for the family where as the spiritual works (like prayers) are for the help of the souls who need and desire them.” More recently, Blessed Catherine Emerick said that “unfortunately, the poor souls in Purgatory suffer much because of our neglect, comfortable devotion, lack of enthusiasm for God and for the salvation of our neighbours […] The saints in heaven cannot fulfil the penitence that is required for disciples and the Militant Church on earth. It is enough to dedicate some prayers or serious thoughts to these souls to help them.”
A spiritual work: Remembering the Holy Souls
In the month of November, the Church reminds us to pray for the dead. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most effective way of helping the Holy Souls into paradise. In the 12th century, St Bernard of Clairvaux had a vision in a Church in Rome known today as Santa Maria Scala Coeli of the Holy Souls ascending a ladder into paradise whilst he was celebrating the Holy Mass. This vision highlights the great power of the Holy Mass in giving relief to the souls in purgatory.
It is also possible to offer all forms of prayers, sacrifices and good works for the souls in purgatory. From the 1st to the 8th of November there is a special indulgence given to Holy Souls by making a visit to a cemetery during and completing the required conditions: sacramental confession within 8 days, Holy Communion, prayers for the Popes intentions and a detachment from all sins.
During the month of November may we pray particularly for our loved ones who have died and ask to Our Lady of Mercy to deliver them swiftly into eternal happiness.