These early days (indeed, the whole month) of November is a time specifically devoted to praying for the poor souls in purgatory. How sad it is that relatively few Catholics even think of the poor souls! Certainly, this woeful neglect on the part of so many is due largely to the fact that few priests have been preaching about purgatory over the past thirty to forty years.
I do hope that we all are taking advantage of the opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence for the dead each day between the first and eighth of November. The requirements for gaining this special grace (from the handbook of indulgences) are:
1) To visit a cemetery and say any prayer for the deceased (the person does not need to actually be buried in that particular cemetery).
2) To be in the state of grace when the work is accomplished.
3) To go to confession.
4) To pray for the Holy Father (an Our Father and Hail Mary, as well as the Creed or the Glory Be, are the traditional prayers).
5) To receive communion devoutly.
6) To be free from all attachment to sin (even venial sin).
Note: Communion should be received on the day or near the day in which the visit to the cemetery is made. Confession may be made several days before or after (and one confession suffices for multiple indulgences [but communion must be received for each plenary indulgence]).
Finally: Only one plenary indulgence may be gained each day (excepting in the case of the moment of death, when a second may be acquired).
Additionally, the usual requirements being met, a plenary indulgence for the deceased may be gained on November 2nd by visiting a church or oratory and offering an Our Father and the Creed.
Now, let’s consider some facts about purgatory!
Is purgatory in the Bible?
While the word “purgatory” never appears in the Bible, the concept is present both implicitly and explicitly. Implicitly, the idea of praying for the dead – as when Job prays for his sons and daughters, or in Maccabees, or when St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to pray for the dead (cf. 1 Corinthians 15) – necessitates belief in purgatory. If the dead are in hell, our prayers could do no good; if they are in heaven, then they have no need of prayer. Therefore, there must be some third place (neither in heaven nor in hell) where the souls of the dead can benefit from our prayers.
The concept of purgatory is also explicitly presented in the Bible. Consider when Jesus says that the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven in this life or in the next (cf. Matthew 12:31) – thus, it is clear that some sins can be forgiven in the next life (we mean the punishment of sin, not the guilt of sin). Likewise, St. Paul states that some who have died will be purified as by fire: If any man's work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire. (1 Corinthians 3:15)
Must I believe in purgatory in order to be saved?
Yes, purgatory has been taught by the Catholic Church as de fide. To deny the existence of purgatory is to deny the authority of Christ Jesus who has revealed this doctrine to us through the Church. Hence, belief in purgatory is as necessary for salvation as the other truths of the Faith.
What is purgatory?
Purgatory is that purification which they must undergo who have died in God’s grace and friendship, but are still imperfect. Purgatory is “this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (CCC 1031) Purgatory is a great and most generous gift from the Lord.
How is purgatory different from hell?
Purgatory is essentially different from hell insofar as the souls there still possess grace. The souls in purgatory have faith, hope and love. Their punishment and suffering is of a purifying nature and prepares them for heaven. Moreover, purgatory is only a temporary purgation and all the souls in purgatory will eventually gain entrance to heaven.
Hell, on the other hand, is eternal. The sufferings of hell do not purify but only torture and punish. The souls in hell have no grace, neither have they any (true) faith, hope or love. The souls in hell will never attain to salvation.
How is purgatory different from heaven?
Purgatory is a sort of ante-chamber to heaven, a preparatory purgation for heaven. The souls in purgatory suffer intensely and are not yet perfectly happy. The souls in purgatory still have hope (rather than the fulfillment of hope in heaven), since they are not yet perfectly possessed by God. Likewise they still have faith, since they do not yet see God.
Do the souls in purgatory become holier?
Essentially, the souls in purgatory cannot grow in holiness. They cannot merit more grace or glory. Neither can they grow in charity. Rather, purgatory is a cleansing which purifies the holiness that they already possess.
Do the souls in purgatory want to get out?
This is a difficult question. On the one hand, they certainly desire heaven (this desire is cause of their chief pain, since they are not yet where they want to be). On the other hand, they would not want to move ahead without being purified. Hence, they love the sufferings insofar as they are purified by them. None are angry or upset about being in purgatory, but they do very much desire the assistance of our prayers so as to swiftly attain to the joy of heaven.
Are there any young children in purgatory?
No, there are most certainly no children who died before the age of reason in purgatory. Purgatory is a punishment for actual sin (either direct sins or sins of omission). Hence, since a child cannot sin until it has attained to the use of reason, it is not possible for any children to be in purgatory.
If the child has been baptized, it most certainly goes directly to heaven. If the child has not been baptized, it either goes to limbo (which is a state of perfect natural happiness, on the fringe of hell) or to heaven.
In any case, young children who die before gaining the use of reason are very happy, indeed they are perfectly happy. They are either supernaturally happy in heaven, or naturally happy in limbo – but they certainly do not suffer any subjective pains (as do the souls in hell and in purgatory).
Will purgatory go on forever?
No. Purgatory will be completed at the time of the final judgment. All the souls in purgatory at that time will be purified instantaneously and will be caught up with the saints in glory.
Is there really fire in purgatory?
Yes. There is real, physical fire in purgatory. This is the best and safest opinion which is nearly unanimous among the Latin theologians (especially the Fathers and Doctors), also it enjoys the favor of several prominent Eastern Doctors (including St. Basil the Great). Additionally, the mystics of the Church speak of physical fires.
It is in this sense only that purgatory can be called a “place”.
How can I help the souls in purgatory?
You can help the poor souls by praying for them, offering up works of mercy, gaining indulgences for them, mortifying yourself in their behalf, and completing other spiritual works for their sake. [Be sure that no prayer will go to waste; since, if the soul is not in purgatory (for one reason or another), Our Blessed Mother will certainly make good use of the graces for another]
Most especially, we consider the importance of praying for the holy souls when at Mass (especially during the Eucharistic prayer), and having Masses offered for the deceased.
Can the souls in purgatory help me?
This is a very complicated question. Generally we would say, no. The main point of purgatory is that the souls cannot help themselves or anyone else, but are in a passive state of purification. They are powerless, hence they rely greatly upon our prayers.
However, it is possible that God may (in exceptional circumstances) allow those in purgatory to pray for or assist in some manner those who are on earth and who implore their aid. Still, this does not seem to be the norm – however, there are most certainly cases in the lives of the saints (e.g. St. Pio) where this did occur.
How can I suffer less in purgatory and get to heaven quickly?
The time is now! Once we die, there is no way to suffer less in purgatory. However, until death, there is much we can do to help ourselves (by God’s grace).
The primary way to avoid excessive time in purgatory is to become holier now. The chief reason why souls go to purgatory is because they are not yet in perfect union with God. Therefore, we must strive to attain to perfect union (which is gained especially through prayer and the dark night of the soul).
Additionally, accepting any and all sufferings (and even adding sufferings through mortifications and fasts) will help to atone for the punishment of sin on earth rather than in purgatory. In this regard, it is good to recall the importance of indulgences and especially the plenary indulgence at the moment of death gained through the “Apostolic Pardon” which is given by the priest through a special blessing when death is imminent, but can even be gained without a priest in some circumstances [more on this in a future article].
Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis. Requiescant in pace. Amen.