The risen Lord is free of all constraints imposed by space and time. He can be anywhere he wants to be, and he wants to be entirely present to us in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Under the appearance of bread, Jesus is truly present: divinity and humanity, body and soul. When the faithful spend time with him in adoration, their love for the Lord grows strong.
Love for Jesus inspires love for all those whom Jesus himself loves, whether living or dead. Bringing all those we love before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, he will move us to pray for the souls in purgatory. He loves them, and he wants us to pray for them. These prayers, collected by Susan Tassone, show us how to pray for them. I recommend this book; most of all, I recommend prayer before the Blessed Sacrament for the souls in purgatory.
Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., Archbishop of Chicago
One of the most cherished devotions of Catholics has been fervent prayer for their deceased family, friends, and that vast multitude of people who have left this world on their way to Our Father’s House. In fact, all Christians, except some Protestants, and almost all people of other world religions — including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus — prayerfully remember their dead in one way or another. Archeological examination of ancient tombs indicates that in the first centuries of Christianity the followers of Christ and His apostles invoked the name of God and His Son’s on those who were making their way from this world to heaven. There was no sense in praying for them if they were already there. This means that they were praying for them on their journey to the kingdom of heaven after death. Long before St. Augustine asked the readers of his Confessions to pray for his deceased parents, Christians made devout intercession to the martyrs, asking them to pray for them in the kingdom of God. At the same time Christians prayed for the rest of the deceased. They did not pray to those who were not martyrs and saints. St. Monica, the mother of Augustine, admonished her children to remember her prayerfully at the altar of God (Confessions, Book IX, 11).
Although Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians have somewhat different ideas about the journey of the soul to God, they both see it as an experience of expiation and purification, during which the soul, through God’s grace and mercy and the precious blood of Jesus Christ, is prepared to enter into the fullness of God’s eternal glory. Even Protestants like Samuel Johnson, author of the first complete English dictionary, could respond to those objecting to Catholic teaching on purgatory by saying that many of the dead are not ready to go into God’s kingdom. We hope that these people are not going to hell, Dr. Johnson and others have reasoned, so “the Catholics must be right.”
A number of quotations from the Bible were used by the early Fathers of the Church to describe the journey from death to life. Because of St. Paul’s words in 1Corinthians 3:12-15, there was an affirmation that there would be some purifying fire, although the Church Fathers knew that physical fire had no relevance to the purely spiritual being of souls without bodies. Catholic and Orthodox Christians have long used a quotation from 2 Maccabees 12:45: “It was a holy and pious thought,” referring to the custom of offering prayers for the dead. An examination of the prayers in this book will dispel the illusion, often held by the uninformed, that our prayers or good works accomplish something directly for the holy souls, that somehow we can “buy their way out” of purgatory. Every prayer in this book explicitly, or at least implicitly, calls on God the Father in His mercy or on His Son, the Redeemer, to receive the holy souls and bring them into the kingdom.
Because of the consolation of faith in the immortality of the soul there is a very healthy and normal impulse to want to do something for our beloved dead. As Terence Cardinal Cooke used to say, “Prayer is the best gift we can give someone.”
The gift of prayer for a dear one on the journey to eternal life is more important than a monument or flowers or any other kind of tribute. The Church has long believed that the very best we can do is to remember the holy souls very specially in the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass. In the Mass the one who prays is Christ the Eternal High Priest, and we join ourselves to Him. Just as it is really Christ who baptizes and absolves from sin and ministers to us in all of the sacraments, so it is clearly Christ who prays in His own words spoken by the priest, “This is my Body. . . . This is the cup of my Blood.” What prayer can be more powerful than the prayer of Christ?
Along with remembering the dead in the Holy Sacrifice, it is beautiful and powerful to pray for our dear dead in the presence of Christ. We are reminded of Martha and Mary accompanying Jesus to the tomb of their brother Lazarus. The words of Martha, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24), echo in our souls as we pray and grieve for our beloved dead. I think that praying for the dead is one of the healthiest things we can do when we feel that death has robbed us of their presence. We can even speak to them if we wish, asking God to let them know what we say and that we remember them. And in what better place could we pray for the dead than before the Eucharist, where we can experience Our Blessed Savior present? If we pray in the presence of the Lord, are we not like Martha and Mary? Are we not also like the Magdalene, who was grieving at the tomb when she first met the risen Christ?
Susan Tassone has gone through the library of the Church’s prayers and has selected a treasury of petitions for the dead. Some prayers are not even specifically for the dead but remind us of the great destiny of eternal life, like the Te Deum (a great hymn of praise to the Holy Trinity traditionally attributed to St. Ambrose or St. Nicetas of Remesiana), which begins this collection. Others are beautiful and solemn prayers of the Liturgy for the Dead. At times, Susan even uses the ideas of the journey to God coming from private revelations, like the writings of St. Gertrude.
In using the term “private revelations,” it is important to note that we are in no way equating them with Sacred Scripture. The popes have consistently taught that such revelations are not infallible. The eighteenth-century Pope Benedict XIV cites private revelations, some written even by canonized saints, that contain serious errors. Those interested in reading more on this subject are referred to my little book A Still, Small Voice (Ignatius Press, 1992) for the Church’s teaching on this subject. Pope Benedict stresses that private revelations are of no greater value than the writings of any other devout writer. Their statements are only as good as their arguments. In their powerful prayer and dialogue with the Lord, very holy souls often get some of their own ideas mixed up with the experience of the graces they are receiving.
The same thing is true of popular preachers. On the one hand, St. Alphonsus Liguori stressed the terrible pains of purgatory, while on the other hand, St. Catherine of Genoa, the great fifteenth-century mystic, wrote: “There is no joy other than that in paradise to be compared to the joy of the souls in purgatory.” The reason for this is that the holy souls are in perfect charity. She continues: “The joy increases day by day because of the way in which the love of God corresponds to that of the soul, since the impediment to that love is worn away daily and this impediment is the rust of sin. As it is consumed, the soul is more and more open to God’s love.”
St. Catherine of Genoa is often misquoted. She does say that the souls in purgatory feel a fire like that of hell except that they have no sense of guilt. The similarity in the suffering is that in one case it holds the soul back temporarily from the vision of God. The lost souls feel “infinite blame and suffering.”
St. Catherine is an important person on the topic of the souls in purgatory, and you might be interested to read her revelations. They have been published in Catherine of Genoa: Purgation and Purgatory, The Spiritual Dialogue, edited by Serge Hughes and me (Paulist Press, 1979).
Everyone agrees that purgatory is a time of preparation and that its greatest pain is the sorrow of not being united with the Holy Trinity in the eternal destiny we are called to. A devout Christian feels this pain even in this life as St. Paul says, “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
St. Catherine also reminds us that we have begun our purgatory even now. Personally, I don’t want to arrive in purgatory before my time. But I certainly don’t want to be late either.
It is obvious that Christian prayer from time immemorial has been explicit about praying for particular people. I pray, of course, for all the dear souls being led through the last stages of the journey to God; but my most fervent, heartfelt, and wholesome prayers are for those I miss, for those whose lives are changed and not ended — those whom I love and long to see again. I even pray for those who died long ago because we do not know how time in this world measures up with duration in the next. To paraphrase the Psalmist: “A thousand years shall be as a day.” I hope that soon I will join that great and penitential procession. Like St. Claude de la Colombière, the spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary, I want to be there for exactly as long as God wants me. “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” I know from my daily sinfulness that I am certainly not ready to enter into the pure radiance of eternity. Surely Our Savior has accomplished all we need for salvation, but I have not yet opened my heart to all that He wants me to be as His disciple. That enemy — myself — is still very much in the way. So as I trust Him in this life, I will trust Him in the next.
Any good Christian should be busy trying to give comfort to the suffering. How about your own family and friends who have gone before you? Follow St. Monica’s advice: Pray for them at the altar of God.
And don’t be sad about it all. The Ven. John Henry Newman wrote a marvelous poem, The Dream of Gerontius (Alba House, 2001), in which he applies St. Catherine’s teaching to the experience of an old man from the moment of death until his entrance into purgatory. His guardian angel accompanies him, and as he enters into the purifying bath of purgatory, the angel says to him: “Farewell, but not forever! brother dear, / Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow; / Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here, / And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.”
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