During the month of November, the Church invites us to remember the holy souls in purgatory. But after receiving the indulgences this month offers (which I’ll address later), we often forget these poor souls throughout the rest of the year.
However, regularly practicing this Spiritual Work of Mercy of praying for the dead not only benefits the holy souls but the Church as a whole.
One body, many parts
The Church extends far beyond its visible members on earth. Membership in the mystical Body of Christ actually exists in three “states.”
Those of us on earth are members of the Church Militant, pilgrims fighting for holiness against the darkness of this world. Then of course, we have the Church Triumphant, who have won the battle and now enjoy the fullness of heaven.
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But what about people who won’t go to hell, but also aren’t quite ready to go straight into the arms of God the moment of their death?
The Church Suffering or the Church Penitent consists of those in purgatory who died in the friendship of God but still needed cleansing of the temporal effects of sin.
The holy souls of the deceased or those living eternally in Christ’s light are as much our brothers and sisters as the people sitting next to you in the pews on Sunday. And when one part of the body suffers, “all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor 12:26).
The Church Suffering
After death, many souls need to undergo a period of “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1030).
The souls in purgatory can no longer help or merit anything for themselves; they have no more opportunities for penances and good works to atone for their sins. “Once the soul leaves the body the time of merit is up. Then they are paying a debt,” Susan Tassone writes in “Prayers, Promise, and Devotions for the Holy Souls in Purgatory.”
And, much like here on Earth, the process of being separated from sin will prove challenging and painful.
Purgatory, while a temporary stop for souls bound for glory and a testament to God’s mercy and love, is a kind of suffering. Many saints have likened it to burning in fire; the greatest desire of their souls, God, is so close, but the desire is not yet fulfilled.
But God in his goodness and mercy doesn’t make these souls go through this difficult process alone. Our prayers and sacrifices can help the Church Suffering finally and fully enter into the presence of God.
The Catechism tells us: “This teaching is … based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: ‘Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.’ From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (No. 1032).
How we can pray for them
St. Margaret Mary referred to the holy souls as her “dear suffering friends.” Her great love for these souls moved her to pray and sacrifice daily for them.
Here are some ways you can help these dear suffering friends during the month of November and throughout the year:
Follow the Holy Spirit’s lead
Do you ever find yourself thinking about a family member, friend or even acquaintance who has passed as you go about your day? Consider that an invitation to pray for that person. Offer a Hail Mary or Memorare right then for their soul that they might be quickly brought into the light of God’s face.
Have a Mass said for a loved one
As the most perfect form of prayer, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most efficacious way to ease the suffering of the souls in purgatory.
While the Church remembers the deceased at every Mass, you can request to have Masses said for specific people. You can use it as a way to remember someone on their birthday or on the anniversary of their death.
Prayer before/after meals
Many Catholics include the following prayer along with their grace before meals as a simple way to remember the holy souls throughout the day: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
This small gesture to remember perhaps those who once sat around our table brings a sense of unity with our departed loved ones as well as consolation to the suffering.
Visit a cemetery
From Nov. 1-8, Catholics in a state of grace who visit a cemetery and pray for the dead, can receive a plenary indulgence for the souls in purgatory.
But you can also obtain a partial indulgence by praying in a cemetery on the other days of the year. Pray at the tomb of a family member or pray at your parish’s cemetery for all those buried there.
Pray the Office of the Dead
The Liturgy of the Hours has a prayer cycle specifically for those who have died called the Office of the Dead. The Church officially prays it on All Souls Day (Nov. 2), but it can also be prayed as a votive office on other days when said for a specific soul.
Again, pray the Office of the Dead on a loved one’s birthday or anniversary of death in honor of that person.
Spiritually adopt a soul
Many people, including many Catholics, don’t recognize the importance of praying for the dying and the already deceased, so many souls die alone and suffer alone in purgatory without the help from their family and friends on earth. But they don’t have to.
Adopt an unknown, dying soul or pray for a soul forgotten in purgatory with no one to pray for them. While you might not have known them on earth, you can create a spiritual bond with them that will last eternally. Pray a Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet for them each day.
St. Alphonsus Liguori writes: “The practice of recommending to God the souls in
Purgatory, that He may mitigate the great pains which they suffer, and that He may soon bring them to His glory, is most pleasing to the Lord and most profitable to us. For these blessed souls are His eternal spouses, and most grateful are they to those who obtain their deliverance from prison, or even a mitigation of their torments. When, therefore, they arrive in Heaven, they will be sure to remember all who have prayed for them.”
Let’s help our brothers and sisters –– members of the Church Suffering –– to become members of the Church Triumphant so they can help us do the same.