Immediately following the Solemnity of All Saints, which honors the members of the Church Triumphant in Heaven, Catholics celebrate All Souls Day, commemorating the Church Suffering in Purgatory. All Souls reminds us of a distinctive and important Catholic practice: praying for the dead.
Yes, Catholics believe that our prayers really do affect the souls of the dead, shortening their stay in the purifying fires of Purgatory. Like other tenets of the Catholic faith, this belief is firmly rooted in sacred Scripture, read in continuity with Tradition.
Christ Himself taught that, “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32) From this passage, Pope St. Gregory the Great inferred “that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.”
Similarly, St. Paul writes that “fire will test the quality of each one’s work” and that some “will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). The Church interprets this passage as a reference to the purifying fires of Purgatory that many souls undergo after death.
In the Second Book of Maccabees, we read that the just Old Testament Priest and general, Judas Maccabeus, “made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”
Commenting on the Book of Job, Doctor of the Church St. John Chrysostom observed, “If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring some consolation?”
An important distinction to remember, however, is that our prayers for the dead cannot change their eternal destination, only lessen their temporal punishment; i.e., we cannot pray someone out of Hell and into Heaven, only shorten the stay in Purgatory of those souls already bound for Heaven.
So how do we do it?
The most powerful means to alleviate the burden of souls in Purgatory is the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Many Catholics have Masses said for their deceased ancestors at their local parish or by the Priests of a religious order. The benefits of almsgiving, fasting, and indulgences can also be applied to the dead, as can any other prayer.
Visiting a cemetery and offering a Rosary for the dead is another Catholic All Souls Day custom. In fact, a Catholic who visits a cemetery and prays for the dead during the month of November will receive a plenary indulgence—an application of God’s Divine Mercy to remove the effects of past sin.
The first Sunday in November is “Cemetery Sunday,” a day set aside by the Catholic Cemetery Conference, an international association of cemetery operators and suppliers, to visit our ancestors interred at the cemetery.
Throughout the year, the faithful also come together in purgatorial societies, pious associations dedicated to praying for the “poor souls,” as those in Purgatory are known.
In all these practices, the natural human desire to honor our ancestors finds a fitting corollary in the revealed truth that our prayers, by God’s grace, really do help our deceased loved ones.
Photo: A grave marker is illuminated on All Souls Day (OSV News photo/CNS/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review.)