A frail old man lay on his deathbed. In a chair beside his bed, a priest sat with him and wiped away the tears that flowed quietly from the dying man’s eyes. The old man asked the priest to hear his confession.
After receiving the sacrament, he said to the priest, “My son, if the Lord calls me tonight, ask all my brothers to forgive me for the trouble I’ve caused them. Ask them also to pray for my soul.”
From these words, one might think the old man had many regrets and much to repent. Just a few days earlier, however, the whole town had held a huge celebration to honor him. The year was 1968, and the occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of the day he had received the stigmata.
The old man was Padre Pio.
He was known to read souls, to see heavenly apparitions, to bilocate, and to obtain miraculous cures. He slept only one or two hours each night; the rest of the time, he prayed. His reputation for sanctity brought pilgrims from around the world to visit him at San Giovanni Rotondo.
And yet, in the last hours of his life, as told in the book Padre Pio: Man of Hope, he made a request that seems bewildering in light of his holiness.
Why would Padre Pio, whom many considered a living saint, who seemed to have one foot in heaven throughout his entire life, beg prayers for his soul? When he was moments away from meeting his Lord, his humility convicted him. He was a saint; and still, he was a sinner in need of mercy.
Dear Suffering Friends
“How grateful I should be,” writes St. Margaret Mary in her Life and Writings II, “if you would help me by your prayers to relieve my ‘dear suffering friends,’ for so I call them. There is nothing I would not do or suffer to help them. I assure you they are not ungrateful.”
When St. Margaret Mary writes of her “dear suffering friends,” the phrase resonates with me. I’ve spent so many hours near tombstones that the souls now feel like old friends.
One of the loveliest places in our town is our local cemetery. Drawn to its beauty and peace, I wind its paths several times a week. Reading the weather-worn headstones there, I wonder about the lives they honor. A Union soldier who fought in the Civil War. A three-month-old baby and her father, both born in the 19th century. A husband and wife with nicknames like “Sweets” and “Lovie.”
I can easily get lost in thought there, and it usually takes some time before I remember that even now, long after they lived, there is something I can do to help these people. That’s when this simple variation of the Jesus Prayer (one I mentioned in an article last November) comes to mind, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, I repeat it:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on the souls in this cemetery.
It fills my heart to pray for the people whose graves I pass—and also for my relatives and other “dear suffering friends.” And in the bounty of divine mercy, I find added peace in knowing that my prayers in the cemetery are not one-sided: When I have intentions close to my heart, I also ask these souls to pray for me.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says something amazing about praying for the dead: “Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.”
When I pray for the souls in Purgatory, it makes them better able to pray for me. What a reciprocal blessing of unity in the Body of Christ!
The Gift of Prayers
When Padre Pio asked that his brothers pray for his soul, he was no stranger to the souls in Purgatory. In fact, he said that “more souls of the dead than of the living climb this mountain to attend my masses and to seek my prayers.”
He told stories of souls who had come to him in visible human form to ask for his intercession. He mystically understood what kinds of sins brought people to Purgatory. Padre Pio was so busy trying to empty Purgatory that, for those who knew him, it must have seemed that he would never need to land there himself.
But still, he asked for prayers for his soul. He knew that he sinned; and even if he went straight to heaven, those prayers would never be wasted. Other souls in Purgatory could benefit from the offering.
It is a comfort to us on earth, when a loved one dies, to think that the person is in heaven. This consolation is real and sweet; it is right and good for us to hope for heaven. But we must not forget what Padre Pio understood: Death is not always a free pass to heaven. In order to get there, many souls need the gift of our prayers.
Each November, the Church gives us an extraordinary gift that we can extend to our “dear suffering friends.” From November 1-8, a plenary indulgence is available for Catholics in a state of grace who visit a cemetery and pray, even if only mentally, for the dead. This indulgence can only be applied to the souls in Purgatory. On other days, the indulgence is partial.
In addition to praying in the cemetery, the conditions for a plenary indulgence are: (a) to receive Communion once for each intended indulgence; (b) go to Confession—a single Confession will suffice for all; and (c) pray at least one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the pope’s intentions.
Padre Pio reminds us that it is never too late to pray, whether a person died recently or long ago: “For the Lord, …everything is an eternal present. Those prayers had already been taken into account so that even now I can pray for the happy death of my great-grandfather!”
I hope and pray that when I leave this life, my loved ones will pray for my soul. I have no doubt that I will need those prayers desperately. And I hope and pray that I will always remember to offer the same act of mercy for my “dear suffering friends,” so that, by God’s grace, we will all meet one day, with the angels and saints, together in the Sacred Heart, for all eternity.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.