One of the most beautiful and peaceful places in our town is an old cemetery. Since it is in walking distance from our house, I go there several times a week to clear my head and pray.
When I first began going, I treasured the quiet solitude. Over time, though, something deeper became part of my walks. Little by little, I started praying for the souls whose bodies were buried there, and I began to ask their prayers in return. Instead of being a place to get away from the world and be alone, the cemetery became a place where I felt surrounded and protected by friends. It still offered quiet peace, but it also offered a spiritual relationship that transcended the physical grounds.
A few weeks ago, while I was walking there, I had a new request for the holy souls. For the past several years, I’ve written an article to honor the souls in purgatory each November. This year, I wanted to do it again, but I was struggling to find inspiration. I was exhausted and depleted, and my brain was in no condition to write. I could barely form a coherent sentence, let alone an article.
Still, I wanted to help these souls who have been so good to me, and so I offered them a bargain. First, I prayed for them, as I always do before I ask their prayers. Then, I told them that I wanted to write this article for them, but I couldn’t do it without their assistance. If they wanted me to write it, they needed to pray for me to receive the inspiration and the ability.
An Exchange of Love
Days later, a package arrived in the mail from my friend Suzie (www.suzieandres.com). She had come across a book, she said, that she wanted to send me. She just felt like this book was intended for me.
I opened the package and pulled out the book: The Amazing Secret of the Souls in Purgatory.
Suzie had known nothing of my bargain with the holy souls when she picked up this book. She’d found it deep in a stack of books at a Catholic book sale, and she almost put it back, but something compelled her to get it—and, soon after, to send it to me.
Truth be told, if I’d found this book in the stack myself, I probably would have been inclined to put it back, too. Nothing personal against this book, but for years, despite my devotion to the holy souls, I’ve generally steered clear of books about the topic of purgatory. I love reading stories about saints helping the holy souls, but I’ve avoided books about purgatory because of a bad experience I had with the first (and last) one I read.
It was about 15 years ago, and I was fervent in my faith, when I found a big book about purgatory and began to read it. The more I read, the more it scared the living daylights out of me. It described the pains of purgatory in great detail, in ways that terrified me.
That fear began to change my faith. Where I had once prayed out of love and devotion, I now found myself praying out of fear. I was terrified of purgatory, and I started trying to pray my way out of it, rattling off devotions like boxes on a checklist, hoping I would rack up enough to escape agony in the afterlife.
It took a long time to undo the damage that reading that book did to my soul. I finally reached a place where I prayed out of love again, and not fear. My walks in the cemetery had made me acutely aware of the holy souls, and I cherished the richness of their friendship. I knew they suffered, and I wanted to help them with prayers, especially since they are incapable of praying for themselves (they can only pray for others).
It was an exchange of love, for when I gave them my prayers, they gave me theirs. The Catechism (958) says that “our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” It’s as if our prayers light a flame for the holy souls, and then the souls can use that very flame to light candles for us in return.
Maria Simma and the Holy Souls
Now, after all these years of avoiding books about purgatory, here I was opening one again. This one felt different, though. The first one I read was thick and dark. This one was small and bright. I looked at the title again, this time noticing the subtitle. The Amazing Secret of the Souls in Purgatory: An Interview with Maria Simma.
I was not acquainted with Maria Simma before. But as I began to read, it soon became clear that she was the answer to my prayer. I had asked the holy souls for inspiration, and they sent her.
Maria, an Austrian born in 1915, had a great love for the souls in purgatory. At age 25, she began receiving visits from them. (Maria’s bishop encouraged her in this charism, and another book she wrote about her experiences received an imprimatur.)
The souls who visited her had one thing in common: They were in need of prayers. They especially requested Masses, but also Rosaries, Stations of the Cross, and other prayers to be said for them.
“We must do a great deal for the souls in purgatory,” Maria says, “for they help us in their turn.”
One story in this book tells of a woman who was particularly devoted to the poor souls, and at the hour of her death was attacked with fury by a demon. As she struggled excruciatingly against this darkness, a crowd of dazzlingly beautiful people appeared, and the demon fled. The unknown dazzling people consoled and encouraged her at the moment of death. When the woman asked who these people were, she learned that they were the souls that she had helped to enter heaven with her prayers. They had not forgotten her.
It is important, Maria says, never to judge or assume the state of a person’s soul after death. She tells of a man and a woman who died at practically the same moment. The woman died having an abortion, while the man was a churchgoer reputed to have lived a devout life. But the man spent much longer in purgatory than the woman, because he criticized and said many bad things about others, while the woman had experienced deep repentance and was very humble.
It is also important, Maria says, to pray for the souls of people we meet on earth, even if our prayer is only a brief one. One day, on a train, she met a man who “didn’t stop speaking evil of the Church, of priests, even of God.” She told him not to speak like that. When she left the train, she prayed: “Lord, do not let this soul be lost.” Years later, that man came to visit her from purgatory. He told her that he had come very close to hell, but her one simple prayer leaving the train that day had saved him.
Maria says that the souls in purgatory would not want to return to earth, for they have a new knowledge of God that is infinitely beyond ours. “It is the soul itself which wants to go to purgatory, in order to be pure before going to heaven,” she explains. “They want to purify themselves; they understand that it is necessary.”
The most efficient means to help the souls in purgatory is through the Mass, Maria says. But every single prayer helps, especially when we offer our own suffering for their sake. If we give our sufferings to Our Lady, she will use them to help the holy souls in the way that is best.
Maria says that Mary comes to see the souls often, “to console them and to tell them they have done many good things,” and that St. Michael and each soul’s guardian angel are also there “to relieve suffering and provide comfort. The souls can even see them.”
The blessings we extend to the holy souls are reciprocal. These “dear suffering friends,” as St. Margaret Mary called them, are the most faithful of intercessors, and their assistance is powerful and fast. I asked them for inspiration for this article, and they quickly arranged for me to receive a book that was both edifying and gentle for my tired mind.
In this book, I also found healing of an old wound. Maria’s description of purgatory offers the antidote to the fear I felt when reading the book that terrified me so long ago. Now I have new confidence that, although purgatory is a place of great suffering, it is not terror that reigns there—it is hope. Leave it to my dear suffering friends to bind up a wound that I didn’t realize was still there.
November Plenary Indulgence
Each November, the Church offers a special opportunity to assist the souls in Purgatory. From November 1-8, the faithful can gain a plenary indulgence for the souls in purgatory by visiting a cemetery and praying there for the dead.
In order to obtain the indulgence, a Catholic in the state of grace must have the intention to obtain it and fulfill the following conditions: (a) visit a cemetery and pray there for the dead, even if only mentally; (b) make a sacramental confession (a single confession, within about 20 days before or after, will suffice for all the indulgences a person obtains within that time period); (c) receive Holy Communion; (d) recite at least one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the Holy Father; and (e) be free from attachment to all sin, including venial. The indulgence becomes partial if the conditions are partially fulfilled.
A note about the last condition: Sometimes people wonder whether it is possible for them to be completely detached from venial sin. I believe the answer to this is found in Mark 10, when Jesus tells his disciples how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God, and they wonder who then can be saved.
“For human beings it is impossible, but not for God,” Jesus tells them. “All things are possible for God.”
Even if it would be impossible for us to be completely detached from sin, it is not impossible for God. As Matthew 7 reminds us, “Ask, and it will be given you;” for our Father in heaven gives “good things to those who ask him.” Let’s ask Him, then, for the grace to be detached from all sin, in order to obtain this indulgence as an act of charity for the souls in purgatory. He longs for these souls to be with him in heaven, and by His grace we can help them get there.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.