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 in the Church Militant (on earth) pray for the Church Suffering (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, 1921):
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?
It would seem that in recent decades many in the Church have actively sought to deemphasize the doctrine of purgatory. 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.
We can wonder if the modern ecumenical movement is not somewhat to blame. Have some of our clergy and catechist possibly sought to downplay, or even ignore, purgatory since it is often a significant stumbling block for non-Catholic Christians? We have seen traditional architecture, classic altars and beautiful statues largely disappear from our churches, leaving the faithful with parishes which are largely devoid of a Catholic identity. Many have gone years without hearing a homily which touched upon sin or hell. Could there have been a similar view of the traditional and “very Catholic” teaching on purgatory?
Canon 30 from the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent clearly states the necessity of promulgating the doctrine of purgatory and 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.
A Prayer is Worth a Thousand Souls
I would like to conclude with a request: please pray for the holy souls in purgatory every day. To that end, there are two exemplary ways we can do this.
First, we can remember them every time we eat by simply praying: Bless us, O Lord! and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. 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. Join my family and thousands of others who still say this prayer daily for the release of these holy souls from Purgatory:
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.