Yesterday, I got in the car and drove to one of my favorite places on earth: an old cemetery.
This cemetery, filled with the “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7), was in the neighborhood where my family lived for twenty years. Walking there nearly every day, I had found a solace that touched eternity. I had hoped I would never have to move too far from this place where heaven felt so close.
But earlier this year, we moved a town away, and suddenly I could no longer walk around the corner to visit the cemetery. I knew moving away from it would be hard, but it turned out to be more wrenching than I ever expected.
As I turned into the driveway yesterday and drove past the stone gate, the old familiar scenery flooded over me. The tree-lined path that I had walked up thousands of times was bursting with fall colors. The oranges and golds were more brilliant than ever in the late-afternoon sun.
I parked and got out of the car, breathing in the autumn air and feeling like I’d come home again. Crisp leaves rustled beneath my feet as an autumn wind whispered through the quiet winding path. With all my senses alive in gratitude, I looked around, made the Sign of the Cross, and began to pray as I went to visit the graves of my beloved friends. For although I didn’t know these people when they lived on earth, each grave marked the existence of an eternal soul, and over the years that I had come to this place, these souls had become my friends.
This had long been our routine, and after all these years it still was: I would start our visit by praying for them, and then I would ask them to pray for me.
For here, in this cemetery, prayer is how our friendship had begun; prayer is how it had grown; and prayer is how it had bridged the years, and the generations, and now the miles between me and these dear souls.
It’s an unusual place for friendship, the cemetery. In life, we usually make friends who were born a few years, or maybe a few decades, apart from us. In this cemetery, built in the 1800s, people born in different centuries, who never could have known one another on earth, are buried side by side. Nowhere in society is there a greater variety of people spanning all walks of life than in the cemetery.
Coming here is not only a reminder of death; it is a reminder of life. For these people, though dead, once lived. Their headstones are a testament to their births as well as their deaths. They were babies once; then children, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, friends. They woke in the morning and read the paper over breakfast; they agonized over bills and rejoiced over homecomings and sat with coffee mugs at the kitchen table and opened their front doors to friends. And in their dying, they entered a new phase of living; for just as I entered the stone gate to this long driveway lined with trees and graves, so these souls entered the celestial gate after a long journey on earth, and their eternal life lay before them.
Were they ready? Were they prepared to meet the Lord when they died? I don’t know, and so I walk, and read the headstones, and pray.
No, these souls don’t live here. Their eternity is elsewhere, but this hallowed ground is a place to honor their memories, and I can’t think of a better way of doing that than praying for them. Our faith assures us that our prayers for the dead can help their souls reach heaven sooner; and not only can we help free souls from Purgatory, but we can also help them at the moment of their death. For, as Padre Pio said, “For God, everything is an eternal present, …so that even now, I can pray for the happy death of my great-grandfather!”
We can pray for the happy death of someone else’s great-grandfather, too – or aunt, or sister, or son. It doesn’t have to be a long prayer. Even a short prayer, such as this variation of the Jesus Prayer, brings untold graces to souls in need:
Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on the souls in Purgatory.
And in heaven’s merciful design of reciprocity, when we pray for the dead, we can ask them to pray for us, too. The Catechism (958) tells us that our prayers for the dead are “capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” Our prayers for souls are a key that opens the door to their prayers for us. And how powerful their intercession is!
Servant of God Don Dolindo Ruotolo, who patiently and humbly endured unjust accusations from Church authorities for many years, once joked with a priest friend that he was going to “turn to the courts” for exoneration.
“Between you and me,” he wrote in a letter to his friend, “I will let you in on who the principal attorney is, as well as the defense board, the tribunal, and how the case is set up. The principal attorney is Mary Most Holy. On the board of lawyers are Saint Joseph, Saint Joachim and Saint Anne, along with the angels of God, Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel, the saints of God, and the souls of Purgatory, especially those of priests…
“What a spectacular defense team!”
I don’t know why we so seldom hear the prayers of the souls in Purgatory invoked alongside the saints, but Don Dolindo’s imaginary court case reminds us of the power of their intercession… especially the souls of priests!
As I wound my way through the cemetery yesterday, I passed a man who was on his knees in front of a grave, lovingly weeding the grass around the headstone, with gardening equipment spread out all around him. Nearby, other graves were decorated with flowers, pumpkins, crosses, wreaths, or colored pinwheels spinning in the wind. How precious these souls were to their loved ones on earth who visited this cemetery and tried to make their graves more beautiful!
Yet other graves had no one to bring flowers or plant pinwheels, and I reflected on how much this earthly image reflects eternal life. For there are some souls who have people on earth to pray for them, to tend their heavenly ground with the gift of their supplications. But there are other souls who have no one to tend their eternal ground—and they need our help.
In His infinite goodness, God gives us a special gift to give to the holy souls each year in the presence of these tombs. In early November, the faithful can obtain plenary indulgences for the souls in purgatory by visiting a cemetery and praying there for the dead.
To obtain the indulgence, a Catholic in the state of grace must have the intention to obtain it and fulfill the following conditions:
- From Nov. 1-8, visit a cemetery and pray there for the dead, even if only mentally
- 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)
- Receive Holy Communion (once for each indulgence obtained)
- Recite at least one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the Holy Father
- Be free from attachment to all sin, including venial
One plenary indulgence can be obtained each day. The indulgence is partial if the conditions are partially fulfilled.
An indulgence for the souls in purgatory is also available on Nov. 2, for those who visit a church or oratory and recite an Our Father and Creed.
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. My friend Suzie suggests adding this little prayer to the prayers for the indulgence: 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.
God is on our side. He wants us to be able to obtain this indulgence as an act of charity for the souls in Purgatory, and He will help us fulfill the conditions if we only ask.
Excerpt from the letter of Don Dolindo Ruotolo is taken from the book Amore, Dolindo, Dolore (Casa Mariana Editrice “Apostolato Stampa”, 2001). Special thanks to Maria Palma Smith for the use of her English translation, which is forthcoming from Academy of the Immaculate Publishing.
Image: Renata Sedmakova on Shutterstock