I drove by a run-down, grey cemetery today while running an errand. Sadly, many graves were in disrepair and seemingly forgotten, like so many of those who have gone before us. The dreary scene was in stark contrast to the bright and sunny spring day and would have been easy to ignore or miss. The thought occurred, “How often do we pass by a cemetery without a second thought, when we should turn off the radio and say a prayer for the hundreds of souls buried there?” I stopped and offered a quick prayer and resolved to remember to do so again next time I encountered a graveyard or memorial park.
Traditionally we don’t think much about Purgatory until fall rolls around and we enter the month of November, dedicated to the remembrance of the Holy Souls, but it is important to remember that friends and loved ones who have gone before us are in need of our prayers throughout the year. Plenary and partial indulgences can be obtained and applied to the Holy Souls not only on All Soul’s Day and from the 1st to the 8th of November, but also during any other time of the year as well. Eucharistic Adoration, the Way of the Cross, recitation of the Rosary, or devoutly reading Sacred Scripture are all devotions which can be exercised for the acquisition of an indulgence, which can be applied to yourself or the souls in Purgatory.
As Catholics, we believe that when we die in God’s grace but not yet perfectly cleansed and purified from the stain of less serious sin, we undergo purification in Purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the doctrine as such:
“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. As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.” -CCC #1031
Scripture speaks of Purgatory in the book of Maccabees, which is acknowledged by Catholics but has been removed from Protestant bibles. It is clear from this passage that shortly before the coming of Christ the Jews believed in praying and offering sacrifices for the dead. When Judas Maccabeus and his military discovered their fellow soldiers who had been killed in battle were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear” (2 Macc:12:40), they saw that the deceased men had sinned. As a result, they prayed and took up a collection as a sin offering. The passage continues:
“In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the dead to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin” (2 Macc. 12:43–45)
Praying for the living and the dead is one of the spiritual works of mercy. We are to show kindness through our prayers and good works to those around us and to those who have gone before us. When we pray for our deceased loved ones, they can also offer us their assistance since we remain in unity with them even after they have died. We should nurture and maintain our friendship with both the saints in heaven and the souls suffering in Purgatory, as we are in communion with them in the Body of Christ.