Padre Pio, Purgatory, and Praying for Souls in the Cemetery

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.

image: Saint Pius of Pietrelcina by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Maura Roan McKeegan


Maura Roan McKeegan is the author of a series of children's picture books about biblical typology, including: The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary; Into the Sea, Out of the Tomb: Jonah and Jesus, and, most recently, Building the Way to Heaven: The Tower of Babel and Pentecost (Emmaus Road Publishing; available spring 2018). Her articles have appeared in publications such as Catholic Digest, The Civilized Reader, Franciscan Way, Guideposts, and Lay Witness.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • John Sposato

    I like to say that if Catholics — indeed, all Christians — prayed for the souls in Purgatory as we ought, we could empty it. It is a great tragedy that Christians generally, and many Catholics specifically, do not think about or accept the truth of Purgatory’s existence.

  • Dr. Philip Cheung

    Padre Pio is one of the greatest Saints that ever lived! If one is experiencing what St. John of the Cross calls the “Dark Night of the Soul”, two Saints will be there to help. One is Little Flower (St. Therese), the other is Pio,….on whose intercessions we always depend.

    Very interestingly, Germany is “celebrating” the 500th anniversary of Luther’s “Reformation” today (October 31). I do not know much about Protestants’ belief system. Do they belief in the existence of PURGATORY? Please write in and enlighten me. Thanks and God bless.

  • Padre

    The souls not yet perfect in holiness are in Purgatory which we now know is located in the cemeteries??

  • Padre

    Let us make these days of November fruitful of the plenary indulgence to bring them into the Heavenly Marriage Feast!!!

  • tom

    I do not believe Lutherans and Sola Scriptura Christians believe in the doctrine of purgatory. God bless Doc!

  • adrienne

    The writer forgot to add the one key requirement for a plenary Indulgence–that is, having no attachment to sin (even venial). This makes it quite difficult to achieve . . . but we still should die trying. Lots of partials do add up!

  • Jong Ricafort

    true..i recently heard that from Fr. Chris Alar…he said good luck and smiles….that’s how difficult to get plenary indulgence but it’s worth trying because the consolation is partial indulgence…a good one also.God bless!

  • Jong Ricafort

    no they don’t believe…book of maccabees is missing or had been removed intentionally in their bible..God bless!

  • Carolyn

    purgatory is in the cemeteries? Have never heard that one, can you tell me more

  • Maura Roan McKeegan

    Hi, Carolyn,

    Purgatory is not located in the cemetery, but the Church encourages the faithful to pray in the cemetery for the souls in Purgatory. Of course, we can pray for the souls in Purgatory anywhere and at any time, but the indulgence from Nov. 1-8 is obtained through praying in a cemetery.

    God bless you.

  • Suzie Andres

    I think the Church is so generous with plenary indulgences because even this “invisible” requirement of having no attachment to sin is VERY possible for us to achieve. Try this – ask the Holy Spirit to give you this grace! You can add to your required prayers for the indulgence, “And dear Holy Spirit, if I am not detached from all sin, please make me detached now, so that I may gain this plenary indulgence that my Mother, the Church, offers to me, her child.”

    As Jesus said, if even we know how to give a piece of bread (and not a stone!) to our children, how much more will God give us what we need!


    For over twenty five years I never visited my father’s grave. Last summer a great guilt came over me for such neglect. Since then I have visited it most every Sunday but mostly I would just stare at the grave stone and think of how it was when he was alive and how things changed after his death. I would at times try to talk to his spirit, report on how things are with me and my brothers and sister, apologizing for my actions while he was alive, asking for forgiveness for not being the son I should have been, just rambling on about things.

    “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on the souls in this cemetery” … That sweet and simple prayer has opened my mind to what I should be doing when I visit. Praying for my father’s soul and all of the others there because I know so many of them or the people in their families. I’m so glad I found this article on a Sunday before I leave for the cemetery. Thank you.

  • Jong Ricafort

    Good day, thanks..yes the Church is generous owe it to our Loving God who cannot be outdone in generosity. The Holy Spirit will give us the grace but it will be up to our own effort & perseverance if we want to be detached from our sins it’s not automatic per se….Also you’re correct the last requirement is “invisible” that’s why the Church has no way of checking your inner secrets…So only God knows the state of our soul…we strive to do what Church teaches re plenary indulgences…and it will be up to God generosity to give us the merits/fruits of our sacrifices…God bless! IHMMP4us.Blessed Ivan Merz, pray for us. Amen

  • Clement Evans

    this i beleive is false.for no one is without sin, the man who says i have no sin is a liar, therefore no on can obtain a plenary indulgulgence.
    the true case for a plenary indulgence is to be “in a state of Grace”

  • adrienne

    You completely misinterpret the point of a plenary Indulgence. We all know we are with sin. That is why the Church has given us these practices and prayers. The Church says we can never know with any certainty that we have fulfilled any Indulgence, mainly because we cannot know that we were without any attachment to sin. But those practices and prayers are still a better way to live, so we should do them with all Love, Hope, and Faith in the Heavenly outcome.