Prayer, Purgatory, and All Souls Day

When I was a Protestant, there were things I thought I knew about the Catholic Church, things I knew I didn’t know about the Catholic Church, but didn’t want to learn, and then a box marked, “Everything Else”.

During my conversion process, that “Everything Else” box grew bigger and bigger as I slowly acquainted myself with this strange new religion that familiarity had convinced me I knew everything about, but pride had kept me ignorant of.  One of the most beautiful, exotic jewels I discovered in that box was All Souls Day.

Growing up Presbyterian, everyone went to Heaven.  And they went there immediately upon the death rattle.  It wasn’t that there was an unshakable certainty in each souls’ eternal reward, it was just that it was gauche to suggest people other than the Hitlers and Jeffrey Dahmers of humanity went to hell, and there was no other option in Protestant theology.  So everyone, from the drunken uncle who didn’t exactly abuse his wife, but certainly made her life uncomfortable, to the coworker who never once, in the 20 years you worked with her, so much as mentioned God, went immediately and directly to their heavenly rest.

It was an odd system, one that not only ignored God’s perfect Justice, but also made His perfect Mercy something cheap and tawdry.

During the RCIA process, I’d bought a copy of the Catechism, and I read it, cover to cover, in the evenings after the kids had gone to bed.  The day I was introduced to the topic of Purgatory was a life-changer for me:

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”609 From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.

When I dug this jewel out of the box of Catholic teaching, it was both beautiful and terrifying.  It was beautiful because it finally gave due respect to both God’s justice and His mercy.  It was terrifying because it sounded like it involved pain.

I don’t like pain.

The next week, I marched into the priest’s office, my copy of the Catechism dog-eared to the offending section.  I slapped it down on his desk and pointed at the part about Purgatory.

“It says here that Purgatory is like burning,” I said to him, with that aggression that is born of fear.  “Is that true?  If it is, I’m out.  I’m not going to do this whole conversion thing just to end up burning in the afterlife anyway.”

Clearly, I was in desperate need of religious education.  And the more I learned about Purgatory, the more grateful for it I became.  I was so grateful for the generosity of God, who give us the security of justice, but also the security of mercy.  I was so grateful knowing that there was a system in place for me to purify myself of the vices I may fail to shed in this life. From a purely human, flawed point of view, it was somehow easier to envision not-so-stellar people enjoying the bliss of heaven if I remembered they had some soul cleaning to endure first.

With that realization, came the understanding that there were people, unknown numbers of people, currently undergoing the purification.  My heart broke for them- those who knew they were destined to be united with God in Heaven, but were still undergoing that fire of final sanctification.  What did that fire feel like?  How deeply did it burn?

But, like the loving mother she is, the Church doesn’t just shrug her shoulders and let the soul in Purgatory burn in isolation.  Rather, she gives us, the living, chance after chance to help our brothers and sisters along in their purification.  Prayers, indulgences, alms and fasting are all ways we can help, and All Souls Day is like the Super Bowl for helping out purgatorial souls.

Coming down off the high of All Saints day, the Church asks us to remember those who’ve gone before us, who will eventually take their place among the angels and saints, but haven’t gotten there yet.  And so take a moment to remember those poor souls, who can’t even whisper a shred of prayer for themselves anymore.  Say a decade of the Rosary for them.  Light a candle for them.  Even better, go to a cemetery to do so.  Firmly ground yourself in the physical reality that all our lives have an expiration date, and someday, by the grace of God, it’ll be us in Purgatory, burning off those last imperfections, gratefully accepting the prayers of the living.

Cari Donaldson


Cari Donaldson lives on a New England farm with her high school sweetheart, their six kids, and a menagerie of animals of varying usefulness. She is the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories, and has a weekly podcast about homesteading at

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  • This is so important to teach and keep in mind. The reality of sin and justice and holiness. Thanks for this article.

  • Gallibus

    An interesting reflection on death and suffering as seen from Jesus’ view is found here:

  • To those who wish to learn more about purgatory, I highly recommend this excellent treatise by Santa Caterina da Genova (d. 1510).

  • Kevin Vail

    It sounds like the author grew up in some corrupted mainline Presbyterianism (PC-USA?). Therefore he never understood Calvinism aright in the first place, he learned “therapeutic moralistic deism”.
    The Calvinist issue with Purgatory is soteriological. It’s rooted in the teaching of sola dei gratia.
    Purgatory highlights the semi-Pelagianism of Catholicism. It shows that salvation is dependent on the works of the human being (always flawed). Calvinism, following scripture, makes salvation dependent on the works of Jesus Christ. There is no purgatory because getting into God’s heaven is not dependent on the purity of the human individual but on the purity and free grace of Jesus Christ. Catholicism conflates justification and sanctification. We are justified by the free grace of God, elected by the Father, bought and paid for by the Son and born again by the Spirit. Being born again maybe a sudden epiphany (like Paul) or a gradual realization that flows from it (like Augustine)
    As for “Hitler” or “Jeffrey Dahmer” getting into heaven, that’s nonsense. Scripture teaches works are the outwardly visible indications of election. It is the role of the Spirit to apply the benefits of God’s grace to the individual soul, gradually throughout our lives. We must have the spiritual humility to assume everyone we meet is elect of God, until proven otherwise by their works and even then we should pray that God will send his Holy Spirit to regenerate them in the very next moment or even on their deathbed.
    The other side of all this is of course there are those that God does not elect, that He in fact hardens to reveal His justice. Sola Dei Gloria! God will be lauded for both His mercy – given to those who did not deserve it and cannot earn it (this is in fact a definition of mercy, if something is owed it is not mercy but justice) and by those who suffer justly for their rebellion against a sovereign God.
    Think of it this way. Imagine a perfect judge which finds 10 men guilty of murder. All 10 deserve death for their crimes, yet this judge pardons 4 and not only pardons but adopts them and makes them inheritors of all the judge has. The other six receive their just sentence.
    I haven’t given scripture references here but if you would like them, respond and I will provide them.

  • noelfitz

    thank you for your reply.
    I considered Presbyterianism/Calvinism taught double predestination, and I cannot conceive of a loving God who would create people that he damns and predestines for hell.
    Free will is hard to understand, but predestination is even more difficult.
    However for a Catholic here it is good to be challenged, so I am grateful to you and hope you feel welcome here.

    I find it difficult to post, so I hope this goes through

  • Kevin Vail

    Thank you for your courtesy, I do feel comfortable in Catholic circles because I was one for quite some time. My theology is probably more high church Anglican than my brothers in Presbyterianism, though I currently attend a Presbyterian church (Presbyterian Church in America).

    I fear my original post got a little off track, mea culpa. It would be logically possible for double predestination and purgatory to be both be true. Calvin said to look too deeply into the divine mystery of predestination was impious. We believe it because it is taught so clearly in scripture as is man’s responsibility. They are BOTH taught very clearly and though that appears to us to be contradictory, it is a great mystery that might be revealed on the other side of the veil, but perhaps it will always exceed human reason.

    What I should have focused on is only implied in my last post, the differing theories of the atonement.

    The Catholic theory of the atonement can be called “infused righteousness”. In this theory grace is a metaphysical substance (CCC: the life of God in the soul). Aquinas says:

    I answer that, by sinning a man offends God as stated above (Question 71, Article 5). Now an offense is remitted to anyone, only when the soul of the offender is at peace with the offended. Hence sin is remitted to us, when God is at peace with us, and this peace consists in the love whereby God loves us. Now God’s love, considered on the part of the Divine act, is eternal and unchangeable; whereas, as regards the effect it imprints on us, it is sometimes interrupted, inasmuch as we sometimes fall short of it and once more require it. Now the effect of the Divine love in us, which is taken away by sin, is grace, whereby a man is made worthy of eternal life, from which sin shuts him out. Hence we could not conceive the remission of guilt, without the infusion of grace. (ST I-II, 113 ad 2)

    Of course, if man is MADE righteous then his admission to beatitude is dependent on his purity.

    The Calvinist does not believe that grace is a thing and does not believe that man is MADE righteous when he is justified. It is a legal judgment, this theory is called “imputed righteousness”. The Westminster divines wrote:

    1. Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

    2. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

    3. Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.

    4. God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.

    5. God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance.

    6. The justification of believers under the old testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the new testament.

    (WCF, Ch 11).

    To use a Lutheran formulation, the Christian is “iustus et peccator simul”.

    The Calvinist takes seriously the command “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6:4-5) and takes seriously the fact of human sin. That we never live up to this and therefore we always stand guilty of sin before an infinitely holy God.

    If the righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed by God to us and our sinfulness is imputed to Jesus and satisfaction made in the atonement, purgatory is superfluous. More than that, In fact it declares that Christ’s sacrifice was in vain and of no effect.

  • Kevin Vail

    Many non-Calvinists have heard of the formulation of the synod of Dort which pithly outlines Calvinist soteriology with the acronym, TULIP. I don’t want to commit the error of equating Calvinism with TULIP, it is much more than that however it does admirably sum up soteriology. Some will speak of being a “4 point Calvinist” or some such thing, but this is not really possible since the whole thing hangs together and to deny one point is to deny them all.

    T = Total depravity.

    Not “utter depravity”, this is the most common misreading. The synod wanted to affirm that the whole of the person was corrupted by sin. Scholasticism tended to exempt man’s intellect from the effects of sin and localize sin in the body (the appetites). Reformed theology asserts that man’s reason is just as fallen as the rest of him. The point is there is no life at all in the unregenerate, they are “dead in sin”, needing a resurrection, not just a little help.

    U = Unmerited election

    This is the simple fact that there is nothing in the Christian to recommend him to God. God elects based on His own good will and pleasure, “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4). Therefore being elect is not a source of spiritual pride. I did not earn it and in fact I bring only the sin that makes it necessary.

    L = limited atonement

    The atonement is sufficient for all men but only efficacious for the elect, otherwise it would be the case that Christ’s sacrifice was in vain for some men.

    I = irresistible grace

    This language is the worst according to the current use of the words. It gives the impression that God “forces” his grace on people. Nothing could be further from the truth. The idea here is that man is dead in sin until God gives him a new heart (born again, regeneration). A regenerate person does not resist God’s salvation because he doesn’t want to, the unregenerate cannot understand it at all ( For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing) [ 1 Cor 1:18]

    P = perseverance of the saints
    Calvinists believe that salvation cannot be lost by the individual’s sinful behavior. Man behavior is not the cause of his salvation therefore it cannot be lost because of his behavior either. Christians can and do fall away from acts of charity and good works but if they are truly called of God they will return before the end. Don’t be confused by the use of the word “saints”. In Catholicism this mainly is used to denote a persons good moral character, Reformed theology focuses more on the bible meaning of being “called out from the world”.

    Hopefully this makes clear why Purgatory is so objectionable to Calvinists.

  • noelfitz

    thank you for your detailed reply. I am afraid it is beyond my naive understanding,
    Here in Ireland most Protestants are Church of Ireland (Anglican), or in your terms Episcopalian. But whether Anglicans are Protestants or not is a question for another day.

    You mention mysteries in Religion, I agree that the mysteries of our religion are great. An Anglican friend of mine believes in the real presence, but does not try to rationalize it. Doesn’t sound too bad an idea.

    You claim the Catholic idea of atonement is ‘infused righteousness’, but I was at a lecture, given by an Augustinian Scholar, and he claimed that Catholics have three theories of atonement. It is a very difficult topic and one worth considering with thought and prayer. There was the early theory, then Vincent of Lerins introduced a new theory and now theologians are struggling to produce a new synthesis.

    When we sin and atonement is needed, is it because a ransom needs to be paid (redemption) or is it because God’s status is insulted and he needs to be placated? Or is it possible to get a theory removed from medieval thinking and relevant to our modern world?

    There is room for theologians. Finally would you ever think of returning to the RCC, there is room and need for intelligent people who think and pray?

  • Kevin Vail

    Every day my brother. There are many beautiful things about Catholicism that I often long for. I pray the Divine Office daily (and have for many years) I may even dust off the rosary every once in a while. When I was Catholic I was a trad. I even considered pursuing ordination to the diaconate (I’m married) once upon a time. I have told my pastor that the Reformation makes sense to me because I was a 16th century Catholic :).
    There is still nothing more beautiful to me than a Tridentine Mass in the Latin rite. I went to it again just this last Easter. I still have acquaintances at that parish though I don’t know their new priest at all, tho there is a priest there who I do know. He used to fill in for the regular FSSP priest when he was ill, out of town or in the missa solemnis he served as deacon.
    I don’t know that I could resolve my doctrinal issues as they are confirmed by many years of serious study and personal experience. But I continue to read a great deal of Catholic theology and pay attention to what is happening in the RCC.

  • noelfitz

    thank you for your long and courteous replies to me.

    I am very impressed with your knowledge and commitment to religion.

    The Catholic Church is a broad Church and there is room for many different views here, and there are very few dogmas which are necessary.

    I wish you every success on your pilgrim journey.

    Remember me in your prayers.