A few days ago, I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. Everything in life felt too much, too hard, too overwhelming. Objectively, I knew things could have been much worse; yet my mind felt clouded and heavy. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the darkness.
It was the first cool day of autumn, so I put on a jacket and went for a walk in the loveliest place in our town, hoping it would clear my head. I’ve written about this place before — an old cemetery not far from my house. The quiet hours I’ve spent winding its paths have blessed my life in countless ways.
The cemetery’s natural beauty is breathtaking, but its spiritual bounty is far greater. It is here, more than anywhere else, that I learned to pray for souls; and it is here that I learned how those souls also pray for me.
As a lifelong Catholic, I grew up praying for the souls in purgatory, but I never really understood the depth of this devotion until I began spending time in the cemetery.
When I first began going, I would look at the headstones—many from the 1800s—and wonder about the people whose lives they marked. Some headstones are polished and stately; others are so weathered that the letters are no longer legible. It’s a fitting symbol of our lives on earth, where some people find success and worldly honors, while others live in silent anonymity, their names all but erased in history.
In the end, no matter how they look, the headstones represent life: hearts that pulsed, lungs that breathed, eyes that opened and closed, day after day, until a temporal night opened the possibility of an eternal morning.
Eventually, I began to pray for the souls whose bodies were buried beneath those headstones. It dawned on me that many of them might not have anyone alive who still prays for the peaceful repose of their souls.
Despite my good intentions, I often found myself caught up in my own thoughts when I could have been praying more. But I believed that the Lord would multiply my prayers for the sake of these souls who needed them so desperately, and I also believed that the souls were grateful for however much or little I could give them.
Only in Christ
On this afternoon a few days ago, I gazed at the headstones and saw several I had never noticed before. (There are always more to discover, no matter how often I go.)
First, I noticed a small tombstone: Harry Kirkpatrick—1908-1923. I wondered about Harry. What could have caused his death at 15? And how did his parents handle the loss?
Then, I passed three graves side by side: FATHER—William R. Pitner, 1871-1929; MOTHER Cora Pitner—1874-1948; and SON—William L. Pitner—1893-1894. I thought about Cora, and how she gave birth to William when she was just 19; how her heart must have broken when he died at the age of one, and broken again years later when she lost her husband.
Further on, I peered up at a tall monument: David Myers—1818-1889. He lived longer than many of the others in the cemetery. How many family members and friends did he leave behind?
The only way any of this bears hope—for children to die young, for parents to lose children and spouses, for old people to leave behind their loved ones—the only way it bears hope is in the light of eternity. Only in Christ can these headstones reveal the truth of the lives they honor. Only in Christ can Harry and his parents be reunited. Only in Him can William and Cora hold their infant son again. Only in Him can David find a life that does not end in death.
And somehow, in the divine plan, God has given me, more than a century later, a way to help make sure these souls are resting in eternal light. My prayers for them can help them reach heaven sooner. And since God is outside of time, those prayers can stretch back into 1923, 1894, 1889, or whenever they are most needed.
The Double Effect of Praying for the Dead
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (958) says that “Our prayer for [the dead] is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.”
This small sentence contains limitless riches! When we pray for the souls in purgatory, they are more capable of praying effectively for us! It took me a long time to realize the power in this promise, and I am still only beginning to tap into its treasure, but I have learned that when I visit the cemetery, I can bring my personal intentions. It is a prayer of double effect: When I pray for souls, I can also ask them to pray for me.
This is what I did a few days ago, when I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. After I prayed for the souls there, I told them how I was feeling. I told them how weak I was, how I could not bear these sufferings cheerfully, and how I needed more grace in order to break the oppression. I asked these souls—these dear friends—to pray for me.
When I got back home, the darkness began to lift. Some people might attribute it to the fresh air and exercise, and certainly that helped, but I have no doubt it was more than that. It was more than a physical boost; it was a spiritual change. Deep within, I knew that the Lord was answering the prayers that I had begged from those souls.
A Plenary Indulgence in November
Now that autumn is here, I am looking forward to an extra gift that the Church, in Her wisdom, gives us each year. 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 (within about 20 days before or after); (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. So let us ask Him for the grace to achieve it. My dear friend Suzie suggests adding this little prayer to the other 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.”
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.” If we ask 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, I believe He will grant it. He longs for these souls to be with him in heaven, and by His grace we can help them get there.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.