The Church teaches us that at the moment of death, we immediately undergo our particular Judgement. After this, there are two options – Heaven or Hell. For those souls going to Heaven, there will be either immediate entry or else a period or purification prior to entry. The Catechism tells us –
“The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.. This teaching is also 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..” (Catechism. para.1031-1032)
Purgatory, then, is not a punishment; rather, it is an act of great mercy by the Lord, Who cleanses these souls before they enter Heaven. And the Church specially dedicates the month of November each year to the memory of the Holy Souls in Purgatory, reminding us of our duty toward them in charity, that we might offer prayers and sacrifices on their behalf, so assisting them to Heaven.
The Holy Souls cannot help themselves – but we can help them, especially by having Masses offered for them, and by applying to them any Induglences we can gain. Whilst they are not able to help themselves, they are able to help us – and those souls we assist to Heaven will not forget us.
At the first appearance of Our Blessed Lady at Fatima, Lucia asked about two young girls who had died shortly beforehand. The first was about sixteen years old when she died, and Our Lady told Lucia this girl was already in Heaven. The second died when she was about twenty; Our Lady said this girl would “be in Purgatory until the end of the world”, according to Lucia. At first glance, this might seem harsh, but there are a couple of things we should remember, just to put this comment into context. First of all, this soul is already saved – she will enter Heaven at some point, for her salvation is assured. And that is a great blessing. Secondly, the Holy Souls are outwith time – time does not apply there in the way it does here, so it is difficult for us to comment with any certainty on the period of purgation which a particular soul will undergo.
What is most important, perhaps, is for us simply to realise that the Holy Souls need our assistance – that we can help them to reach Heaven sooner, by the ways already mentioned.
It is also important to remember that we should never ever presume that a particular soul is already in Heaven – if we do, the danger is that we will not pray for them. If they are in Purgatory, our prayers will assist them; if they are already in Heaven, our prayers will help other souls.
One final point to remember is that, God willing, we will one day undergo our own purgation – for we should never presume to be so pure in soul that we will enter Heaven immediately. And when that day comes for us, how we will thank God for those souls praying for us.
It is a good practice to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to assist the Holy Souls in Purgatory; She is greatly concerned for them, as these words from the Diary of Saint Faustina attest –
“I saw Our Lady visiting the souls in Purgatory. The souls call Her ‘the Star of the Sea’. She brings them refreshment.” (Diary, para.20)
May Our Blessed Lady, the Star of the Sea, pray for and assist the Holy Souls.