“No man is an island,” so Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”). We are each bound to one another “through innumerable interactions” so that: “No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.” Pope Benedict exhorts us to ask, “what can I do in order that others may be saved? . . . Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.” Salvation is a social reality. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of the community of believers coming together in a city. Heaven, as a city full of people, is a place of communal salvation. Sin, on the other hand, introduced the “destruction of the unity of the human race.” While man’s original unity was torn apart by sin, the work of redemption aims to heal that disintegration, as Benedict discerns, “redemption appears as the reestablishment of unity.”
Each believer is an interconnected cell in the Mystical Body of Christ. We are a band of brothers and sisters, bound together in hope and love, in a confraternal exchange of supernatural charity. Even now, the saints of Church Militant on earth, are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” – Church Penitent (or Church Suffering) in purgatory and Church Triumphant in heaven. The Communion of Saints live in a symbiotic relationship: the saints in heaven and purgatory interceding for those on the earth, while the believers on the earth ask for their heavenly intercession. And, in this month of November, dedicated to the souls in purgatory, we recall our special role in this symbiotic relationship while still alive: to pray, sacrifice and intercede for the dearly departed souls in purgatory.
Those in purgatory have died in God’s grace and friendship and are “assured of their eternal salvation,” however, they are “still imperfectly purified” and must necessarily “undergo purification” to enter into heaven (CCC 1030), for nothing unclean enters into it. (Rev. 21:27) Jesus spoke of purgatory, alluding to it as a “prison,” in which we pay for our sins down to “the very last penny”:
“Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” (Lk. 12:58-59)
St. Paul similarly tells the Corinthians that we all will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and are subject to a “purifying fire;” they “will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:15) The encounter with Christ is one of grace and judgment. Benedict describes this eloquently:
“Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. . . . Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.” (Spe Salvi, 44) Even after Confession, we must still make penance.
The departed faithful souls in purgatory do have to make recompense for their sins to satisfy the perfect justice of God. We can, however, assist them in that. The Catechism (CCC 1032) quotes an example from Scripture saying, “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Macc. 12:45) And so, how do we as Christians make atonement for the dead? The Catechism clarifies this:
“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.”
We are called to be intercessors, for both the living and the dead. We can offer up our prayers, sacrifices and sufferings on behalf of the poor souls in purgatory, for they can no longer merit for themselves. But, God has deigned through the Communion of the Saints that we can make up for others what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. For, we are “God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9), contributing to the salvation of souls. We can do this through our prayers, such as praying the rosary for those in purgatory. We can offer penances, and sacrifices. We can give alms, and do acts of charity on behalf of the deceased person.
Benedict also recommends a particular devotion for everyday life, that is, “offering up” all the minor daily hardships of the day. We can “insert these little annoyances into Christ’s great ‘com-passion’ so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race.” We can offer up those petty annoyances throughout the day whatever they might be, slow traffic, the heat, the pestering co-worker, etc. “In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning.” (Spe Salvi, 40) We can be assured that our efforts, prayers and sacrifices are efficacious and capable of mitigating the suffering of those in purgatory. (CCC 958)
Most importantly, we can offer the sacrifice of the Mass, and indulgences granted by the Church, for souls in purgatory. You can contact your Church and have a mass offered for your beloved deceased. Another beautiful gift is the tradition going back to Pope Gregory the Great of offering “Gregorian Masses” for deceased persons on thirty consecutive days. These are generally not done now in parishes, but in monasteries, seminaries, and other religious institutions.
The efficaciousness of intercession for those in purgatory has received mystical confirmation too. One such mystic was St. Faustina. She wrote in her Divine Mercy diary about a soul, a recently deceased nun, who visited her from purgatory requesting her prayers. Upon first visiting her, the sister was in “terrible condition,” but after some undisclosed amount of time of praying for her, the nun eventually returned and “her face was radiant, her eyes beaming with joy.” She would soon be released from purgatory and conveyed to her that many souls had “profited from my prayers.” Similarly, in the Divine Mercy Novena, dictated to St. Faustina by Jesus, He asks us to offer the eighth day for the souls in purgatory. He told St. Faustina, “It is in your power to bring them relief. Draw all the indulgences from the treasury of My Church and offer them on their behalf. Oh, if you only knew the torments they suffer, you would continually offer for them the alms of the spirit and pay off their debt to My justice.” (Diary, 1226) Memorializing a person is nice, but prayer for the deceased may be what they truly need.
Thus, it is within our power as members of the Communion of Saints to assist the poor souls in purgatory in the process of their purification and sanctification. Our prayers and sacrifices can help pay off their debts. In turn, in gratefulness for the merit we win for them, they will surely pray and intercede for us, until, at last, in heaven we will meet all those who we have helped, undoubtedly to our surprise. Also, lest we put our earthly time limits upon God, we should remember to pray even for those who have died long ago. God, who exists outside of time in eternity, receives all of our prayers and sacrifices in the eternal present, and can merit a soul whether long since dead or in purgatory. So, out of love for our family and friends, let us do our part in supernatural charity for the souls in purgatory, who may be most in need of our help.
image: By Lorenzo di Niccolò Italian, Florentine, documented 1393-1412 – Artist (Italian, Florentine)Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons