Genealogy Offers Opportunities to Pray for the Souls in Purgatory

It was a crisp November.  As I watched the State Trooper firmly leveling the brim of his hat and striding towards my car, many things went through my mind.  Foremost, the mixture of curiosity and embarrassment over what my two sons were thinking in the back seat and that the flashing lights somehow looked autumnal in the early dawn.

I lowered my window and entered into the formulaic dialog.

Officer: Good morning.  Did you notice how fast you were driving just now?

Driver: No officer.  Had I, I am sure I would have been more careful.

Officer: Well, you were driving 20 miles over the limit.  Even on a clear and early morning, that is not wise, especially with children in the back seat.  A father should be a good example to his sons.

Driver: Yes, sir.  Very true.  I am sorry.  I don’t dispute your judgement.

Officer: So, if I may ask, where are we going this morning?

There was a pause, but without much reflection I replied, knowing that honesty was far from the highway script.

Driver: We are going up to Maine to pray at the gravesites of my grandparents and our family.

The trooper became still and clenched his jaw.  I handed him my license. He walked away; and my boys and I watched the flashing lights through mirrors.  After an immeasurable amount of time, he returned. The officer, I now noticed, was very young, red-eyed, and now looked less fierce.  He handed my license back and said, “That’s a good thing you’re doing. I am sorry. Carry on and be safe.”

Visiting Departed Loved Ones

My boys and I continued driving through the Maine countryside, visiting three cemeteries and a battlefield. We cleaned moss from tombstones and made the graves solemn and decorous again—some a few decades old, some hundreds.  At each site, we prayed from the Office of the Dead.

The abundant liturgies, prayers, and devotions for the dead—the faithful departed, the poor souls in Purgatory—are sadly neglected these days.  Some parishes may have a “book of the dead” out in late October, but few parishioners know much about the doctrine of Purgatory or the intercessory prayers and indulgences offered for the faithful departed.  My own deepening appreciation for our Faith’s traditional devotions has been quickened by genealogy.

Genealogy is the systematic study of lineage and family history.  The backbone of serious genealogy is the documented family tree.  For many, this seems merely a passionate hobby.  Yet genealogy over the past quarter century has advanced exponentially and scientifically.  Over 15 million people have used’s DNA service; 3 million maintain annual subscriptions—and that is one online service.  My boasts 25 million users.  Each month over 1 billion unique searches are done on the Ancestry site and My Heritage sites.

It is tragic that such an explosion of interest occurs at the same time when (according to a recent study) one third of Americans cannot even name all four of their grandparents.  

Genealogy, Prayer, & Evangelization

Genealogy may well prove fertile grounds for evangelization.  It is a deep and human longing to know and honor ancestors. The Commandments and the many scriptural injunctions to honor parents and ancestors are secured by Revelation, but have always been understood as part of the natural law.  There is something deeply engraved on the human heart that calls for us to know our past, our specific past, and honor our forefathers. This is a manifestation of the virtue of piety.

Genealogy can also prove a great boon to invigorating our devotion to the poor souls. My College’s patron, St. Thomas More, held close the devotions which sought to ease the suffering souls in Purgatory—perhaps because he foresaw that assaults against these devotions were at the center of the Reformation.  I recommend his The Supplication of Souls as November reading—both for hearing out More’s defense of Purgatory, but also because it captures so much that remains at stake in Catholic culture.  In that work, More depicts a single poor soul addressing the reader.  He pleads with the reader not to abandon the devotions to the poor souls and not to forget his many friends and family members who proceed him, and rely upon his prayers.

The scientific and historic discipline of genealogy has long been embraced as a stimulating way to enter (through one’s own family) the tumult of the Past.  I would like to suggest three immediate ways that the “hobby” of genealogy can become the handmaiden of Catholic devotion.

First, genealogy assists remembrance.   

No human can recall the lineage of his entire past, let alone his lineage.  This exceeds the capacity of one human mind.  Even the recollection that we find in the Old Testament is focused on a single line of descent, not multiple lines such as we find in a family tree.

St. Thomas More’s poor soul emphasizes the danger of forgetfulness: “… never let any slothful forgetfulness erase us out of your remembrance…”.  Well-kept family trees along with the knowledge and observance of significant anniversaries (whether these be birth, Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, vows of Holy Orders, or death), allow a Catholic to remember and pray for the dead with intention and regularity.  

All of us know too well how easy it is to forget the significant days (birthdays and anniversaries) of those dear and near to us in life.  Why should we delude ourselves into thinking our powers of memory will increase when a person is no longer part of daily life?  Over the past several years, I have built a family tree over 1,000 documented ancestors stretching back into the 14th century.  There are Catholics and Protestants—all souls whom I can pray for, on the anniversaries of their death. All of whom I can remember in a disciplined fashion.  For the month of November, I have a calendar by which, day by day, we move backward in time through a series of grandparents and great grandparents.  My family can live out the devotion to the poor souls, learn of our own past, and a healthy amount of history and geography.  On the 11th of November, I have a list of each family member whom I know served under arms back to the 17th century.  

The Church’s teaching is no longer an abstract dogma (de sent., de fide, sent. certa, sent. fide proxima, etc.), it is lively and lived.  How better to fulfill a parental obligation to teach diligently the Lord’s ways to honor our parents, than to instill the eternal needs of our souls, in this world and the next.

Second, genealogy assists intention in prayer and detachment.  

The particularity of a personal genealogy fosters a strong sense of the individuality of the soul for whom we may pray.  We do not lift a vague prayer for the category “the dead” in the Catholic tradition, we do not pray for an abstract soul, but for the specific members of the faithful departed.  When we consider model prayers from Scripture and Christian history, these are normally prayers for individuals—whether living or deceased, whether it be like those of Judas Maccabeus praying for his fallen comrades, Our Lord’s prayer for Lazarus, St. Stephen for St. Paul, or St. Monica for St. Augustine.  In the latter two examples, we can easily imagine the intense prayers Paul later offered for Stephen and Augustine for Monica.  

Let us be clear on this.  To some Christians, it can seem unnecessary or even self-centered to prayer for specific needs. The issue of specificity in prayer was taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas. In the Summa Theologiae (II-II, Qu. 83, Art. 5),  Thomas considered whether it is right to ask for something specific in our prayers. When we pray one of the most powerful parts of prayer is that the action of prayer transforms us.   God is already aware of our concerns.  With respect to our concerns for the poor souls, surely, He is aware of their suffering and need for mercy.  

Thomas, in his consideration of the specificity of prayers, defends a devout person asking for any true good.  He notes that at times a person may ask God for things that could harm or be misused.  Yet to lift up our prayers for the sake of those in purgatory offers little discernible material advantage.  If anything, prayers for a soul in Purgatory carries with it signs of profound detachment and selflessness.  

Traditionally, prayers for the poor souls specify that the fruits of the prayer—the indulgence—are “applicable only to the holy souls” or “only to the souls detained in purgatory.”  Even those that lack such specificity are self-evidently prayers of intercession on behalf of a particular soul in Purgatory.  And if the prayer is a plenary indulgence, the effect is double: the poor soul receives the relief offered through prayer, and the intercessor—in order to fulfill his obligation in prayer—is prompted to go to Confession, receive Communion, and pray also for the sake of the Pontiff, who is ever in need of our prayers.

Third, genealogy allows us to escape time and deepen our union with the Mystical Body of Christ.  

When I stare at so many particular souls on my genealogical charts, so many ancestors who were born, lived, and died at so many particular points in history, I could be overwhelmed.  But, again, genealogy for the Catholic, is not simply a collection of data and dates.  It is a collection of souls.  It is a representation of the Church—once militant, now suffering, and hopefully to be triumphant.  Yet these distinctions dissolve in prayer.  

Consider our Lord’s prayers in Gethsemane and during the whole of the Passion—these transcended time (cf. CCC 2605 and 2606). When I think upon the soul of a family member, and pray for them, I am taken outside of time.  As Pope Benedict put it in his encyclical Spe Salvi—I am called “to imagine [myself] outside of that temporality” which limits my spiritual vision.  I am lifted outside of time:

So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope.

A brief consideration of the Church’s intercessory prayers for the sake of those even outside the normal structure of the Church should embolden and excite us about working for the sake of the poor souls in Purgatory and perhaps even the living souls of the past.  Can we not unite ourselves with Christ in the Garden and pray for each and everyone of our family members—living and dead—that they be strengthened to accept God’s mercy at the end of their lives?

Remember the Poor Souls in Purgatory

We do well to pray for the dead and to teach our children to pray for the dead.  If my own pale suggestions do not move you, consider the poor soul who spoke through St. Thomas More’s Supplication:

Remember… So might God make your offspring later remember you.  So may God keep you out of here, or not long here, and bring you shortly to that bliss to which, for love of our Lord, you help bring us.  And we will set hand to help you join us there.

The entire month of November is dedicated to remembering the poor souls. Remember them.

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William Edmund Fahey is a Fellow of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (Merrmack, New Hampshire), where he also serves as the College’s third president. He is a member of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. His ancestry in New England can be traced back to the Elizabethan Age.

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