THE BISHOP'S VOICE: Praying for the holy souls in purgatory
On most days of the Church’s liturgical year, one or more saints are presented for our veneration and celebration. On Nov. 1, we celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints, all the holy men and women of every time and place who now enjoy the fullness of life and joy with God in heaven.
We know the names of some of these saints because they have been canonized and lifted up for our emulation and devotion. We can safely assume that there are many other saints whose names we do not know, but we nevertheless honor them on All Saints Day.
Devotion to the saints is a hallmark of our Catholic faith. Why is it so important that we know the saints and give them our veneration? It is because the saints are our heroes in the faith. Men and women like us, the saints are very real examples of holiness and perseverance, oftentimes in the face of great suffering. The saints are clergy, religious and laity — men and women, young and old, from all vocations and circumstances of life. From the examples of their holy lives we draw inspiration. They have completed their pilgrim journey to heaven, and they beckon us to follow them, assuring us that, with God’s grace, we too can become saints.
The Church urges us to know the saints by becoming familiar with their lives. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council reminds us that the saints show us the very face of Christ. He speaks to us in them. We come to know Christ in knowing their heroic lives. It was St. Jerome who said that ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. We could well add that ignorance of the saints is also ignorance of Christ.
The saints give testimony to the power and love of God manifested in His creatures. In the words of the Constitution on the Church: “Every authentic witness of love, indeed, offered by us to those who are in heaven tends towards and terminates in Christ, ‘the crown of all the saints,’ and through him in God who is wonderful in his saints and is glorified in them” (no. 50).
November is also the month of the souls in purgatory. Throughout this month the Church urges us to pray for all those who have gone before us, marked with sign of faith. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no.1032) teaches us that prayer for the dead is one of the spiritual works of mercy.
The Catholic practice of prayer for the dead is bound up with our belief in the reality of purgatory. Unless we die in a state of spiritual perfection, i.e., not only with all our sins forgiven, but also with all temporal punishment due to sin remitted, we cannot enter heaven. Nothing imperfect can enter the presence of God. “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, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1030-31).
Because we do not know whose souls are in purgatory and whose are not, we pray for ALL the faithful departed, especially those who were closest to us in this life or those most in need of prayers. Even though a person may have led an exemplary life, no one but God knows if that person went immediately to heaven at the moment of death. For that reason, it is actually an injustice to assume that any one of the faithful departed (unless canonized by the Church) does not need our prayers. Because the souls in purgatory cannot pray for themselves, they rely on our prayers — especially the Holy Mass offered for them.
Just as our prayer for the souls in purgatory should not be confined to the month of November, so our devotion to the saints must be a regular part of our spiritual lives as Catholics. I encourage you to take up one of the many fine anthologies of the saints and become familiar with their holy lives, especially those saints who are celebrated in the Church’s liturgical calendar. Seek their holy intercession as they worship at the heavenly throne. So often we ask our fellow Catholics to pray for us. How much more ought we to ask the prayers of those whose holiness has brought them face to face with God in heaven.
Once again, the Constitution on the Church expresses our faith so beautifully:
All you saints of God, pray for us.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.