At Mass this past Sunday, as the lector read the Prayers of the Faithful, I was stunned to hear a familiar name in the intentions. It took me a moment to register the shock as I realized that we had just prayed for the soul of an elderly gentleman I knew. Until that moment, I’d had no idea that this man had died.
Some years ago, he had prayed over me for healing, and I remembered the quiet sincerity and intensity of his prayers. Since then, I had seen him often at daily Mass. I noticed how he struggled physically — he had a hard time kneeling and standing during the liturgy — yet he seemed to make every effort to participate in the Mass with the same sincerity and intensity that I had felt the day he prayed over me.
As I stood there in the pew, these memories hit me with unexpected force. When I realized that I would never again see him at daily Mass, tears flooded my eyes.
Well, I thought to myself as I grasped for consolation, at least he is free from suffering now. He’s in a better place.
Then I stopped myself. Here I was, falling into the same trap that tempts me every time someone dies. Even though I’ve written articles about this very experience, I still have the same immediate tendency, when I hear about a death, to console myself by declaring that the person is in heaven.
I believed this was a holy man — why wouldn’t he be with the angels and saints?
Even Holy Souls Might Need Prayers
For all I know, he very well might be in heaven. But he hasn’t been canonized, and so I don’t know with certainty the state of his soul. It was a consolation for me to think of him in heaven; but if he was in purgatory, he wouldn’t benefit from my consoling thoughts. He would benefit from my prayers.
When I realized what I was doing, I stopped assuming he was in heaven and started praying for him to be there.
The Church has a longstanding tradition of praying for the dead because many souls, even holy ones, spend time in purgatory, and our prayers can help them reach heaven faster. It is beautiful to hope that our loved ones are in heaven. And in God’s mercy, He grants us a way to help them get there—on the wings of our prayers.
Even Padre Pio, when he was on his deathbed, asked his brothers to pray for his soul.
So did Fr. Balley, a holy priest who, disguised as a carpenter, risked his life to bring the sacraments to Catholics during the religious persecution in France at the turn of the 19th century. One boy to whom he surreptitiously gave First Communion returned to him years later as a seminary student. Fr. Balley spent countless hours helping the intelligent, pious, prayerful, but academically challenged young man to pass the tests for ordination.
The grateful student, who also became a dear friend, was St. John Vianney.
“I have encountered beautiful souls,” Vianney said, as told in Leon Cristiani’s book St. John Vianney: The Village Priest Who Fought God’s Battles, “but never any more beautiful than his.”
When Fr. Balley was on his deathbed, he reached beneath his pillow and pulled out a hairshirt and a discipline — two instruments he had used regularly to mortify his flesh in penance — and gave them to St. John Vianney.
“Take these things, my poor child, and hide them,” Fr. Balley said. “If these objects were found after my death, people would think I had sufficiently expiated my sins. And then they’d leave me in purgatory until the end of the world.”
He risked martyrdom to minister to his people; he interceded for his parishioners with nearly constant mortifications and penance; he helped raise a saint; and still, he begged prayers for his soul.
This story inclines me to hope that if I’ve ever written a holy word or done a charitable deed, they will all be hidden at my death, and my family will tell of my (many, many) shortcomings so that no one will ever be tempted to think I’m already in heaven and “leave me in purgatory until the end of the world!”
The charity of praying for the dead cannot be measured.
How to Pray for Souls
There are many ways to pray for the souls in purgatory. In November, the Church offers a plenary indulgence that we can obtain for them, but we can pray for them in other ways throughout the year.
One simple way is to pray this version of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on the souls in purgatory.”
Another way is to attach this prayer to grace before meals: “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
Or we can lift up a spontaneous prayer, in words or in silence, from the heart.
Many people also turn to this prayer of St. Gertrude, said to release 1,000 souls from purgatory for those who pray it devoutly:
I offer You the Most Precious Blood
of Thy Divine Son, Jesus,
in union with the Masses said
throughout the world today,
for all the holy souls in purgatory,
for sinners everywhere,
for sinners in the universal Church,
for those in my own home,
and in my family. Amen.
Even if we pray for a loved one and it turns out that his soul is already in heaven, those prayers will not be wasted; God will use them to help other souls who need them. And since God is outside of time, we can pray for souls who died months, years, or centuries ago, and our prayers now can assist them at the time of their death.
A Two-Way Street
The Catechism assures us that our prayers help souls in purgatory — and that it’s a two-way street: When we pray for them, these souls receive extra ability to pray for us.
“Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them,” the Catechism (958) says, “but also of making their intercession for us effective.”
I walk this two-way street, literally and spiritually, several times a week, when I visit a nearby cemetery. Over two centuries old, it has become a beloved place for me to think and pray. I read the headstones and pray for all the souls whose bodies were buried here. To keep my mortality before me, I sometimes imagine my own name on one of the headstones and hope that, when it becomes real, someone will see it and pray for my soul.
I also ask these souls to pray for me, giving them special intentions that are weighing on my heart. When I do, I feel surrounded by an invisible force field of love. Their prayers have brought tangible, powerful graces into my life, and I think of these souls as friends in the Mystical Body of Christ.
If every person reading this takes a moment to pray for the souls in purgatory, how grateful they will be for our assistance. When you pray for them, remember that you can ask them for their prayers, also. In the Mystical Body, God’s mercy enables us not only to give graces to one another, but to receive them as well.
The holy souls will not forget you when you remember them.