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Remembering the souls in Purgatory

Besides natural concern for loved ones, self-interest should move us to heed the prospect of Purgatory for ourselves.

Detail from "Sühneschiff Und Läuterungsberg Aus Dem Purgatorio" (1827) by Joseph Anton Koch. (Image: WikiArt.org)

Coming just after Hell and just before Heaven, the second of the three books that make up Dante’s Divine Comedy is the Purgatorio—Purgatory. In its ninth canto, Dante places these words in the mouth of the angelic guardian of Purgatory’s gate who, displaying his keys, tells his listeners:

I hold them from St. Peter—who bade me err
Rather in opening than shutting out.

In the poem, as in the teaching of the Church, Purgatory can only properly be understood as an expression of God’s boundless mercy. For this is not a place of punishment but a place where, as a consequence of the divine generosity, repentant sinners are made ready to enter Paradise.

While the calendar of the Church contains no feast of Purgatory as such, we have its equivalent instead. It falls on November 2, just after the feast of All Saints, and is called All Souls Day. This is when the Church encourages us to pray especially for our departed ones—spouses, children, family members, friends, and many others—who we believe and hope are most likely now in Purgatory. This year we might even say a prayer for Dante, the 700th anniversary of whose death we marked a few weeks ago.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives this succinct statement of the doctrine of Purgatory: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).

Besides natural concern for loved ones, self-interest should move us to heed the prospect of Purgatory for ourselves. As St. John Henry Newman points out, “in one sense, all Christians die with their work unfinished.” Purgatory is where the finishing touches are added.

Newman made that point in one of his Anglican sermons, “The Intermediate State.” Like many non-Catholics, before his conversion he was hesitant about the idea of Purgatory as such, but he already recognized the need for a “time of maturing” between death and heaven, and regarded it as “a great consolation” for anyone who thinks seriously about such matters.

Today, as then, there are two large reasons to do just that.

One has to do with the apparently large number of people who, says Newman, are either negligent, unrepentant, or foolishly certain of a death-bed conversion to see them through in the end. The Church does such people an immense kindness by now and then calling their attention to the traditional Last Things—which include Heaven and Hell along with Purgatory.

The other great reason for remembering those in Purgatory whom we call the “Holy Souls” has to do with our serious duty to lend them a hand by prayer and penance, just as we hope others will do for us when the time and need come. St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), a saint famous for her self-sacrificing services to the sick and poor as well as for her mystical experiences, put it this way in her treatise on Purgatory:

“The Almighty is so pure…that if a person is conscious of the least trace of imperfection and at the same time understands that Purgatory is ordained to do away with such imperfections, the soul enters this place of purification glad to accept so great a mercy of God.

“The worst suffering of these suffering souls is to have sinned against divine Goodness and not to have been perfected in this life.”


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About Russell Shaw 239 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, and, most recently, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.

8 Comments

  1. Suggestions – Dedicate your next Rosary to the most forgotten soul in purgatory.

    Have a Mass offered for the most forgotten soul in purgatory.

    • Yours is a fine suggestion.

      I used to take to work a bus that went by an historic cemetery, full of cockeyed gravestones from the 17th century.

      One morning, I wondered which of the souls of those buried in that cemetery was in Purgatory, but farthest from Heaven. I take a different bus to work today, but I still say an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be for that soul, whoever he or she may be, each morning.

  2. At least as urgent as praying for those in Purgatory is praying for those who need a final lift just to merit Purgatory. The moment of conversion can sometimes happen in seconds…

    We are reminded of the criminal aided by the prayers of St. Therese and who, moments before his execution, converted by kissing a crucifix. Then there’s also the encouraging case reported of the Cure of Ars (St. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney), the patron saint of parish priests…

    A widow mourned the passing of her husband months earlier and who had committed suicide. Vianney, who could read souls, stopped her: “I tell you he is saved. He is in Purgatory and you must pray for him. Between the parapet of the bridge and the water he had time to make an act of contrition. Our Blessed Lady obtained that grace for him [….] Though your husband professed to have no religion, he sometimes joined in your prayers; this merited for him the grace of repentance and pardon at his last moment[!].”
    We can pray that, at their last moment, especially needy relatives and friends will say “yes” instead of “no,” or nothing. Regardless of timing, such prayers can bring eternal benefit. Knowing as we do that God dwells in eternity—that is, outside of time—and that our prayers, even for the long-deceased, are heard not when we happen to say them, but earlier at their moment of urgent need.

    Within the fatherhood of God, the timeless Communion of Saints is a graced and really tight family.

  3. I did hear in a sermon that the commandant of Auschwitz who was a Catholic, before his execution asked for Confession – whether he was given absolution is not known – but I believe that if he was absolved he would be in Purgatory if not in Heaven – in our very angry unforgiving world people need to hear this and it may give hope to the most hopeless sinners

  4. God’s love inexpressible beyond our comprehension is said by Catherine of Genoa to reach even down to the depths of Hell. That fiery punishment is measured not infinite although the damned deserve it. Only duration is infinite. Saint Caterina Fieschi [of Genoa] reveals privately God’s alleged mind, as with all private revelation we can’t offer unquestioned credibility, although her words make sense. Catherine of Genoa also says that at the moment of death the will, whether disposed for good or evil remains forever locked in. A condemned soul with evil intent at the moment of death and final judgment cannot will good, although we’re aware Satan can feign good intent to deceive the faithful. Catherine of Siena in her Dialogues alleges Our Lord after judgment and condemnation may forgive if that person expresses sorrow for their sin against Him, but not out of fear. A second chance? Personally, we can’t count on that, and a soul intent on evil is highly unlikely to be motivated by sorrow rather than fear. Our best understanding is our disposition at the moment of death. Purgatory is a blessing knowing that however we may suffer we’re saved and destined for eternal happiness. Caterina Fieschi says while the soul suffers it’s known its suffering is removal of the remnant of sin in purification for union with our infinitely good God. Saint Maria Faustina says in her Diary that Christ urges that we take advantage of indulgences to avoid painful reparation. Pontiffs Gregory the Great among them have addressed the spirit of martyrdom as red or white, red those like Jean de Brebeuf who wrote of his burning desire to die for Christ fulfilled by his Iroquois captors, and white those who willingly suffer torment in this life in imitation of the suffering Christ Saint Francis of Assisi a perfect exemplar. To pray for the grace to have the heart of a martyr is a blessed thing. For ourselves and the many sinners such a course will save from eternal fire. All in all Russell Shaw’s thesis is right, that Purgatory is a most welcome dimension of God’s merciful love.

  5. Adam and Eve fell from paradise (meaning, from Old Persian, a forested park-like setting). Where did they fall to? They fell to sickness and death, to a more difficult raising of crops, to those things that the human soul endures that becomes separated from God. Sin begets Purgatory, and that is separation from God — from holiness. The less we are sanctified, the deeper the state of Purgatory, even unto a condition of hell. Christ healed the sick and raised the dead, to demonstrate that God exists, and dwells among us. “neither shall they say: Behold here, or behold there. For lo, the kingdom of God is within you.” Lk. 17.21. Purgatory is within you. When your soul departs your body, it receives another body, and continues its journey. If we draw closer to the knowledge of God, we become more free from the Purgatory that Adam and Eve found themselves in, after attempting to hide from God.

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