In Lumen Gentium(the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), the Second Vatican Council declared that: “Fully conscious of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead, and “because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins”, also offers suffrages for them.” (LG 50).
In other words, pray for the holy souls in purgatory!
As members of the pilgrim Church, this is one of our duties. We the Church Militant (on earth) pray for the Church Suffering (those in purgatory) so that they may be released to join the Church Triumphant (the saints in heaven). This is the Communion of Saints; this is the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ referenced by the Council.
For a clear yet thorough explanation of purgatory, we can reference the classic work The Catechism Explained: An Exhaustive Explanation of the Catholic Religion by Rev. Francis Spirago, edited by Rev. Richard F. Clarke, SJ (Benziger Bros. NY, 1899):
Purgatory is a place where the souls of those must suffer for a time, who, though dying without grave sin on their souls, have not done complete penance for their offences against God.
The holy souls suffer in purgatory to expiate either their venial sins, or those mortal sins, which, though absolved, have not been completely atoned for.
The sufferings in purgatory include exclusion from the vision of God and other great pains. The greatness and duration of the sufferings in purgatory vary according to the gravity of the sins. (pp. 264-265)
Regarding our obligation to assist the holy souls in purgatory, Fr. Spirago states:
The faithful on earth can help the holy souls in purgatory by good works; in particular by prayer, fasting, alms-deeds, by offering or being present at Mass, by receiving the sacraments and gaining indulgences.
The relatives of the departed are bound to help them. Prayer for the dead are of great benefit to ourselves, for it is a work of mercy. (pp. 266-267)
A Forgotten Doctrine?
Those of an older generation have shared their experiences of growing up in a Church that consistently spoke of those members of the Church Suffering who were in need of our prayers and sacrifices. It would seem that in recent decades many in the Church have intentionally neglected speaking about the souls in purgatory.
We can wonder if the modern ecumenical movement is not somewhat to blame. One might ask if many of our clergy and catechists downplay, or even ignore, instructing the faithful about purgatory since it can be a stumbling block for non-Catholic Christians. Many have gone years without ever hearing a homily which even touched upon sin and hell, let alone purgatory.
At the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent the Church clearly stated both the need to affirm the doctrine of purgatory as well as the consequences of failing to do so:
If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema. (Canon 30)
A Prayer is Worth a Thousand Souls
I would like to conclude with a request. If you aren’t doing so already, please pray for the holy souls in purgatory. Pray for them regularly. To that end, there are two exemplary ways we can do this.
First, we can remember them every time we eat by simply praying the traditional Grace after meals:
We give Thee thanks for all Thy benefits, O Almighty God, who livest and reignest world without end. Amen. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Second, we can recite the St. Gertrude Purgatory prayer. St. Gertrude, a 13th century mystic and abbess of a Benedictine monastery, had a strong devotion to our Lord’s Sacred Heart. Traditionally it is believed that Christ promised to release a thousand souls from purgatory each time the below prayer is said:
I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus,
in union with the Masses said throughout the world today,
for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory,
for sinners everywhere,
for sinners in the Universal Church,
those in my own home and within my family. Amen.
May we the Church Militant fulfil our obligation to the holy souls in purgatory by practicing this spiritual work of mercy each day.
An earlier version of this article was originally posted on August 6, 2013.
Above illustration by Gustave Dore from Dante’s Purgatorio.