In the month of November, it is fitting that we think on the poor souls in purgatory. While it is a matter of faith that the saints can pray for us, and likewise that we can pray for the poor souls, there is no little question as to whether the souls in purgatory can pray for us. While there is much popular devotion today – which seems also to be supported by the experiences of certain more recent saints (for example, St. Pio) – by which the faithful invoke the intercessory power of the holy souls, it is good to recognize that the majority of the tradition is decidedly against this possibility.
Granting that nearly every Church Doctor has either implicitly or even explicitly held that the poor souls cannot pray for us, is there any ground for imploring their intercession?
[Much of this article was occasioned by comments and questions regarding an earlier post on the nature of purgatory.]
It would seem that the poor souls cannot pray for us
The nature of purgatory is a passive purgation. The souls there are rendered entirely passive, suffering the purifying fires of purgatory. Thus, they are in a state of needing our assistance, and are in no state to give us assistance.
Further, we must note that the way in which a human soul naturally comes to knowledge of things in the world is through sense experience. By nature, a man can have no knowledge without sense experience.
However, the saints in heaven know of the occurrences on earth both through the beatific vision and the infusion of knowledge in their intellect. Yet, the souls in purgatory lack the beatific vision and also (ordinarily) do no receive infused knowledge – at least we have no reason to think that they receive knowledge in this mode. Therefore, the better part of the Doctors and theologians maintain that the poor souls know nothing of what is occurring on earth.
Thus, there is a double objection to the idea of the poor souls interceding in our behalf: first, they are not in a state to offer assistance to us, but rather are in need of our prayers; second, even if they could pray for us, they do not seem to know anything of what we are experiencing and would have no knowledge of our request for their assistance.
The witness of the tradition and of the liturgy of the Church
We must admit that the tradition and the liturgy give no reason to think that the poor souls can pray for us. At no point in the liturgy does the Church invoke the prayers of the souls in purgatory – rather, she prays in their behalf.
Further, there is no substantial evidence that any of the Church Fathers believed that the poor souls could ordinarily intercede in our behalf. Likewise, the scholastic theologians are decidedly against the idea. St. Thomas rejects the notion principally because of the fact that the poor souls are in a passive state and cannot actively pray. St. Robert Bellarmine adds that, even if the poor souls could pray, they would have no knowledge of that for which they ought to pray.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church touches upon this point briefly saying: “Our prayer for them [i.e. the poor souls] is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” (CCC 958) The point here is that, once our prayers help the poor souls to attain to heaven, then they will be able to intercede for us.
A further consideration from St. Alphonsus
Yet, all this notwithstanding, there is the simple fact that many saints have claimed that the poor souls do regularly intercede for them. Thus, we must attempt to understand what is occurring. In this matter, we turn to the great Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori (from The Great Means of Salvation and Perfection):
“Again, it is disputed whether there is any use in recommending one’s self to the souls in purgatory. Some say that the souls in that state cannot pray for us; and these rely on the authority of St. Thomas, who says that those souls, while they are being purified by pain, are inferior to us, and therefore ‘are not in a state to pray for us, but rather require cur prayers.’
“But many other Doctors, as Bellarmine, Sylvius, Cardinal Gotti, Lessius, Medina and others affirm with great probability, that we should piously believe that God manifests our prayer to those holy souls in order that they may pray for us; and that so the charitable interchange of mutual prayer may be kept up between them and us. Nor do St. Thomas’ words present much difficulty; for, as Sylvius and Gotti say, it is one thing not to be in a state to pray, another not to be able to pray.
“It is true that those souls are not in a state to pray, because, as St. Thomas says, while suffering they are inferior to us, and rather require our prayers; nevertheless, in this state they are well able to pray, as they are friends of God. If a father keeps a son whom he tenderly loves in confinement for some fault; if the son then is not in a state to pray for himself, is that any reason why he cannot pray for others? and may he not expect to obtain what he asks, knowing, as he does, his father's affection for him?
“So the souls in purgatory, being beloved by God, and confirmed in grace, have absolutely no impediment to prevent them from praying for us. Still the Church does not invoke them, or implore their intercession, because ordinarily they have no cognizance of our prayers. But we may piously believe that God makes our prayers known to them; and then they, full of charity as they are, most assuredly do not omit to pray for us. St. Catharine of Bologna, whenever she desired any favor, had recourse to the souls in purgatory, and was immediately heard. She even testified that by the intercession of the souls in purgatory she had obtained many graces which she had not been able to obtain by the intercession of the saints.”
Can the poor souls pray for us?
Generally, we must say, “no” the poor souls cannot pray for us. In the ordinary course of things, the poor souls are neither in the state to pray in our behalf, nor have they knowledge of our needs or our prayers.
However, there is no reason to think that God could not grant special dispensations to certain of the poor souls at times. Thus it was that, according to the testimony of several saints, some poor souls have heard and answered the prayers of the living.
Still, this is not in the norm and the Church does not at this time recommend a regular habit of asking for the prayers and intercession of the poor souls. Rather, especially in the month of November, we are to recall our duty to pray for them – certainly, the soul which is freed from purgatory by our prayers, will not fail to reward us with many blessings.
Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis. Requiescant in pace. Amen.