By Prof. Michael Ogunu
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), all those 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.
The practice of special devotion to the souls in Purgatory in the month of November is an old tradition in the Catholic Church.
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The ‘Catechism of Christian Doctrine’ (Revised Edition published by London Catholic Truth Society, 1971), explains that “those souls go to Purgatory that depart this life in venial sin, or that have not fully paid the debt of temporal punishment due to those sins of which the guilt has been forgiven”. The Catechism gives the Scriptural or biblical basis for belief in the existence of Purgatory:
“I prove that there is a Purgatory from the constant teaching of the Church, and from the doctrine of Holy Scripture, which declares that God will render to every man according to his works; that nothing defiled shall enter heaven; and that some will be saved, yet so as by fire” (Matt. 16:27, Apoc. 21:27, 1 Cor. 3:1-5).
It is an incontrovertible dogma of faith always believed in the Catholic Church, and founded on indisputable evidence, that the faithful are able to aid the souls in Purgatory. Hence St. Augustine observes: “While others weep and mourn at the death of their relatives, be thou intent on coming to the relief of the departed soul by sacrifice, prayer and alms. Prayer by itself and atonement by expiatory works, or both happily united constitute the suffrages for the souls in Purgatory”.
This article describes twelve means of relieving the suffering of the souls in Purgatory, according to Catholic tradition.
- Catholic Burial
The first effect of a beloved person’s death is weeping or lamenting by the relatives. Then follow the preparations for burial, the ordering or purchase of mourning dress, a pompous funeral (depending on the financial ability of those affected) and visits of condolence, which later are in some cases a mere courtesy made for the sake of appearances.
The suffering souls do not receive the least benefit or consolation from a showing funeral. On the contrary they are grieved at witnessing how Satan is served and ambition flattered thereby.
The Holy Fathers (e.g. St. Jerome) severely condemn the practice of pompous funerals and earnestly exhort us to aid in having burials performed according to the rites of the Church. The ceremonies of the Church, the bearing of the cross, the ministers in their Sacred vestments, the blessings, incense, holy water, blessed candles and the consecrated ground are all replete with sweet and abundant consolation for the departed soul.
- The Sacrifice of Holy Mass
The Holy Sacrifice of Mass has always been considered by the Church to be the most effective means of releasing the souls of the faithful departed from their torments.
Our prayers and still more the prayer and suffrages of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints bring relief to the suffering souls. But what is the prayer of heaven and earth compared with Holy Mass? In prayer a creature intercedes for a creature; in Holy Mass, Jesus Christ, eternal God like His Father, makes intercession for us. Speaking of the value of this Holy Sacrifice, St. Alphonsus Liguori says:
“As the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ was more than sufficiently powerful to redeem the whole world, so also is one Holy Mass powerful enough to save it”.
This august sacrifice is undoubtedly the most powerful means to release the holy souls from their place of torment. This is solemnly declared by the Council of Trent, saying, “The ecumenical Council teaches that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls confined therein are assisted by the suffrages (prayer, sacrifice and good works) of the faithful, and especially by the Holy Sacrifice of the altar”
- Official Prayer of the Church
The Catholic Church is the great institution for our salvation, founded by Christ for the whole world and for all times. As such she has the sublime mission and task of continuing throughout the centuries Christ’s work for the redemption of mankind, and to accomplish it by the conversion and salvation of all nations. The official Prayer of the Church has an essential and particular efficacy of its own. It is more powerful to obtain graces and benefits from God than the prayer offered privately by individual persons, however pious and holy they may be.
Besides the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the dead and the absolution, the Church has ordained also the recitation of a special Office for the Dead. This is handed down to us from the earliest ages of Christianity, and gives evidence of the ardent charity and devotion with which, the Church implores mercy at the throne of God and intercedes for her suffering children.
- Offering of Holy Communion
Frequent and worthy reception of Holy Communion is a most excellent means whereby we can pay off all our own indebtedness, and most effectually help the suffering souls. St. Bonaventure observes: “Let charity and compassion for your neighbours urge you on to approach the Sacred table; for nothing is so effectual as Holy Communion to obtain relief for the suffering souls”.
- The Holy Rosary
A most appropriate prayer for the faithful departed is the Rosary. The Blessed Virgin herself assures us through St. Dominic that “The release of the souls in Purgatory is one of the chief effects of the Rosary”. Blessed Alan relates that many Brothers and Sisters testified under oath to having had apparitions of souls from Purgatory during the prayer of the Rosary. They appeared to them wearing the sign of the cross on their foreheads, thanked them for their prayers, and asked them to persevere in it; for except Holy Mass and indulgences, there is, they said, no means so powerful to release souls from Purgatory as the Rosary, and a great number of souls were delivered by it every day.
The two most efficient means of obtaining the grace of God for ourselves and others, and thereby gaining heaven, are the Sacraments and prayer. St. Bernard touchingly remarks: “I will invoke the Lord with mournful lamentations. I will beseech Him with continual sighing. I will remember the departed in my prayers, hoping that the Lord will cast a pitying glance on them, and will change their torments into rest, their distress into ineffable glory. By such means their time of punishment can be shortened, their pains and torments mitigated”. No less aptly does Thomas á Kempis observe:
“Therefore let us pray for our dear ones, whom we shall follow in a short time, that hereafter they may remember us in our distress and suffering; but let us always pray with fervent devotion and attention. A short but fervent prayer is sometimes of greater benefit to the suffering than a prolonged form of devotion which is wanting in attention”.
St. Jerome observes: “I prefer one Psalm recited with devotion to the whole psalter said with distraction.
We read in Holy Scripture. “Prayer is good with fasting and alms more than to lay up treasures of gold; for alms delivereth from death, and the same is that which purges away sins and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting. (Tob. XII. 8, 9).
Alms given for the suffering souls help to atone for our own sins of extravagance, and sins proceeding from the abuse of wealth. Rev. John Nageleisen in his book, “Charity for the Suffering Souls” asserts that “This (alms given for the suffering souls) is almost the only way of attaining salvation for those who live in affluence”. The punishment of Purgatory is inflicted on many souls who during their earthly lives were wanting in charity to the poor. By giving alms for the suffering souls we atone on their behalf for their want of charity while on earth.
To remove a scandal, to repair injury, to pay debts, in a word, to make good whatever the departed souls failed to settle before leaving this world — all of these are most meritorious works by which the punishment of Purgatory may be softened and shortened.
In order to help the suffering souls, we must render satisfaction to God for the sins that offend Him.
We must satisfy the demands of divine justice by corresponding works of atonement, works by which God is glorified, and man is deprived of some enjoyment in penalty for the sinful gratification in which he wrongfully indulged. By fasting we chastise our body, refuse gratification to its appetite, give strength to our soul and pleasure to the whole spiritual being. Fasting is directed against all forbidden pleasures and enjoyments. By fasting therefore, we atone for the sins committed by and against our body. Instead of applying this atonement for ourselves, we can offer it to Almighty God in union with the fast of Christ in favour of the suffering souls.
According to the doctrine of the Church, the guilt of sin and its eternal punishment is remitted in the Sacrament of Penance.
The temporal punishment due to sin however is not always remitted entirely in the Sacrament of Penance, as is done in Baptism. This remaining temporal punishment, as long as it is not remitted, must be suffered either in this world or in Purgatory, before we can enter heaven. Satisfaction for temporal punishment is made by the works of Penance imposed in the Sacrament Penance and united with the merits of Christ, and is applied to us by the power of binding and loosing granted to the Church by Christ Himself. By this same power works of penance are imposed on us outside the Sacrament of Penance for purpose of gaining indulgences.
Finally, satisfaction is also rendered by voluntary works of penance, and by the unavoidable sufferings borne with patience and resignation — all this in union with the merits of Christ.
An indulgence therefore is the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin which the Church grants to the faithful, provided they observe certain conditions. The entire temporal punishment is remitted by a plenary indulgence; a part of it only by a partial indulgence.
It has always been the practice of the popes to grant numerous indulgences applicable to the suffering souls; by gaining of the indulgences we cede to these imprisoned friends of God so much remission of temporal punishment as we would have obtained for ourselves.
It was revealed to St. Bridget that many and great punishments are remitted on account of indulgences, so that whomsoever departs this life after having gained a plenary indulgence before consenting to another sin is admitted to heaven just like one dying in his baptismal innocence.
- Holy Water
When we take holy water and sprinkle ourselves or our surroundings with it the prayer of the Church ascends to heaven drawing down blessings upon us and on the objects that are sprinkled with it.
Holy water may be used not only for the purpose of benefiting persons present, but may also be applied for the absent and especially for the suffering souls. In this case the prayers of the Church ascend to heaven in favour of the person or soul intended to be helped. Deodatus, one of the ancient Fathers of the desert remarks: “As the flowers withering in the heat of the sun are refreshed by the rain, so also the souls in Purgatory; these flowers elect of heaven, scorched by the Sun of eternal Justice are refreshed by the devout application of holy water”.
- Burning of Blessed Candles
God Himself in the Old Testament ordained that lights should be used in His temple and at religious rites performed there. For this purpose He gave the minutest of directions: “Thou shall make a candle-stick of beaten work of the finest gold … Thou shall also make seven lamps, and shall set them upon the candlestick, to give light over against”.
Under the Christian dispensation, the use of lights was retained not only when the Sacred mysteries were celebrated at night during times of persecution, but also during the day. In the early Church those selected to take care of the lamps and candles were specially ordained for this purpose.
The burning lamp or candle signifies Christ, the eternal Light which we implore in our prayers to shine upon the departed. At the same time they are also alms for the suffering souls, symbolizing charity; for as the flame gradually consumes the blessed Candles, thus charity reduces the torments of the purifying fire.
- Confraternities for the Relief of the Suffering Souls
Confraternities for the Relief of the Suffering Souls are pious unions or societies founded for the aid and relief of the souls in Purgatory. The existence of such pious unions or confraternities for the relief of the suffering souls can be traced as far back as the year 700 of the Christian era, namely in Mabillon’s “Acts of the Saints of the Order of St. Benedict”. In the lives of other saints also we often meet with leagues of prayer which holy persons entered into for the purpose of helping one another in mitigating torments of Purgatory. We find instances of this in the biographies of St. Boniface, the Venerable Bede, Abbot Eudberit of Wiremouth, and others.
Terrified at the thought that, as Bellarmine expresses it, “but few just men will escape the exceedingly great pains of Purgatory, because only a very small number are admitted to heaven through the supreme mercy of God immediately after their death”, compassionate souls resolved to come to the aid of their deceased brethren by the extraordinary power of united prayer and other works of suffrage.
The joint intercession, the increased devotion, the multiplied grace, the virtues and merits of brethren united in God are powerful means of moving the Heart of a God so fail of compassion for His children in distress.
The following conditions must be observed in order that our good works for the souls in Purgatory may be accepted by God:
- We must have the intention of resigning the merits of our good works in favour of the suffering souls. Our intention may specify a particular soul to whom we desire to apply our suffrages. If the works of suffrage are offered for the relief of the suffering souls in general, the satisfactory fruits thereof are divided among them all.
- The work performed must be one of atonement. All good works are such; but they are not all equally valuable as atonement. Their atoning value depends either on the disposition of the person performing them or it may be inherent in the works themselves as for instance Holy Mass, indulgences and the prayers of the Church.
- According to the unanimous doctrine of all theologious, the good works, to be effective, must be performed in the state of grace. Nevertheless there is no doubt that the atoning effect of such good works as possess atoning power of themselves, are of benefit to the suffering souls even though they be performed in the state of sin: such works are for instance Holy Mass and the Prayers and blessings of the Church.
The suffering souls receive no benefit of a good work performed in the state of sin, when the value of the work requires it to be performed in the state of grace. If in such a case the petition of a sinner is granted, this is not done because the work itself was worthy the favour, but solely and purely as a result of God’s mercy.
Sometimes our excessive love for the deceased prevents us from using the right means at the proper time. We do not reflect on the condition of our own soul; we do not examine our own state of conscience before God, but are only concerned at the suffering of our brethren and friends. We perform our good works too hastily, without first offering to God a humble and contrite heart; and thereby we expose them to the danger of being rejected. We loved our departed ones in life, let us remember them in death. Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
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