For as far back as I can remember, I have prayed for the dead. They feature at length in my second prayers of every day – the first being my Morning Offering – and they are remembered at intervals during the day and again with my Chaplet in the evenings. I pray for my parents and relatives and all those I have known who are now dead, and for all the dead. As I learn of a death, I pray in that moment for the soul, and again in the evening.
I do this because as a Catholic, my faith obliges me to do so, as does simple charity. This is especially true for those souls to whom we have a duty of charity – parents, relatives, benefactors and those who have asked our prayers – but it applies, too, to all the dead. And it aplies especially to those who have no-one to pray for them – the so-called ‘forgotten souls’.
Furthermore, the dead need our prayers – they can no longer help themselves and so they rely on the prayers, sacrifices and good works of those still on earth, who can assist these souls in paying the debt they owe to Divine Justice.
Over the last few years, I have noticed something odd happening amongst many of the Catholics I know and have contact with – there seems to be a diminishing of the realisation of this need to pray for those who have died. Part of this becomes evident in the comments people make, whether in what they say or in what they write, whenever someone dies – “she’s with the angels now” or “in Heaven now with her husband”. Now, while thoughts such as these may offer some sense of human comfort to the bereaved (and to ourselves) – it is not necessarily a true comfort, simply because we cannot assume we know the eternal fate of any soul excepting those the Church tells us are in Heaven by virtue of declaring them Saints.
On the one hand, souls can appear superficially very holy in life, but this apparent holiness may conceal all sorts beneath the surface, and of which we are unaware – scandals following the deaths of certain ‘holy’ people attest to this. And on the other hand, we are quick to judge people negatively and make assumptions about their eternal fate, while the Lord – and the Lord alone – sees into the depths of the human heart. He alone knows with what trials and difficulties a souls has struggled in life, what efforts it has made, nor with what end result.
Remember – there is at least one avowed Satanist in Heaven, now a canonised Saint; and also a person who was terribly addicted to heavy drugs throughout many long years and who never managed to overcome the addiction (and during those years, because of his addiction, he was barred from receiving the Sacraments of the Church) – he, too, is now a canonised Saint.
The message here is a very clear one and it is this – we should never judge nor presume to know if a soul is in Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. Instead, we should simply pray, relying on the mercy of God.
I suspect that we will all be surprised if we get to Heaven and then we find out who got there before us! In that moment, we will realise how poor and erroneous many of our human judgements have been during this life.
And so if it is true that we cannot ever presume to know the fate of any soul – is this not reason enough to give us cause to pray for the dead?
For those souls who are already damned, there is nothing we can do – but we should still pray as we do not know their fate; and who knows if, perhaps, the kind prayers of some living soul might not have obtained final mercy to save that soul from eternal condemnation? And for those souls already in Heaven and who do not, therefore, need our prayers – still we should pray, for the same reason as before; we do not know their fate with any certainty. And if our prayers are not needed for that soul, they will be put to good use elsewhere for another soul.
I suspect that for a great many souls, it is another option which will – initially, at least – apply. Purgatory.
The Catechism tells us this –
“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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect..” (Catechism, parae.1030-31)
We remember these souls in a special way in the month of November, dedicated as it is to the Holy Souls. But the Holy Souls don’t find themselves there for only one month of the year (if I can put it that way, as time does not exist in that place) – and so we should be mindful of them throughout the year.
Whilst the point of Purgatory is purification to enable admission to Heaven – and whilst that admission is now assured for these souls – they need our prayers, sacrifices and good works to assist them on their way. These souls cannot help themselves – they rely on the assistance we can offer them. Quoting Saint John Chrysostom, the Catechism counsels – “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (Catechism, para.1032).
The Holy Souls have one further help given to them – the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Church calls the Mother of God the ‘Star of the Sea’, and for good reason. Her task in eternity is to assist all souls to reach Heaven, whether through immediate entry or via Purgatory. And She cares enormously for the souls who are retained in that place. In her Diary, ‘Divine Mercy In My Soul’, Saint Faustina documents that she was granted to see the Blessed Virgin several times and writing about her experiences, she said this –
“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)
What could that refreshment be? I can only assume that She descends to Purgatory to comfort the Holy Souls during the period of their purgation – which, I assume, may be extended for some of them; and regardless of the ‘time’ they are required to spend there, I don’t suppose the experience is a pleasant one, even if it necessary.
Elsewhere in Saint Faustina’s Diary, the Lord comments on the experiences of these souls. In the section of the Diary devoted to the Novena which precedes the great Feast of Mercy, the Saint records these words of the Merciful Lord, speaking about –
“..the souls who are in the prison of Purgatory.. Let the torrents of My Blood cool down their scorching flames. All these souls are greatly loved by Me. They are making retribution to My justice. It is in your power to bring them relief. Draw all the Indulgences from the treasury of My Church and offer them on their behalf. Oh, if only you knew the torments they suffer, you would continually offer for them the alms of the spirit and pay off their debt to My justice.” (Diary, para.1226)
These words alone, and ignoring everything else, ought to be more than sufficient to make us pray for the Holy Souls.
They should also act as a reminder that one day we, too, may well be numbered amongst these souls – at which point we will be dependent, as they are now, on the prayers and sacrifices of kind souls.
“Hail, Queen of Heav’n, the ocean Star, guide of the wand’rer here below!
Thrown on life’s surge we claim thy care, save us from peril and from woe.
Mother of Christ, Star of the sea, pray for the wanderer, pray for me.”
– Catholic hymn