A reader writes:
I know that it is always good to pray for the souls in Purgatory. Otherwise, the souls won’t make it to Heaven. However, is it O.K. to pray that all of the souls in Purgatory be released and allowed to go to Heaven. In fact, the moment all souls would be released (if God wants to do this), then a new batch would come into Purgatory and take their place. Am I correct in this? Or, are we only supposed to pray for people we know that have died? Let me know (if you would). Thank you so much. Happy Advent (it’s still not Christmas yet).
Thank you for the questions! And Happy Advent to you as well (good point about it not being Christmas yet!).
Allow me to go through the query a bit at a time:
I know that it is always good to pray for the souls in Purgatory.
Yes! Absolutely! Always a good thing to do!
Otherwise, the souls won’t make it to Heaven.
Actually, they will. Purgatory is the final stage of purification for those who die in God’s friendship but who aren’t yet completely freed from the consequences of sin. Because they die in God’s friendship, they will—without any exceptions at all—make it to heaven.
Our prayers, therefore, do not affect whether they make it to heaven. Instead, they affect how they make it to heaven. Specifically, they make the transition to heaven easier.
What “easier” means in this context is something that we don’t have a lot of information about, because God hasn’t revealed that much to us. It may be that they make the transition easier in the sense of shortening the time (however time works in the afterlife) that it takes the souls to make the transition, or it may be that it eases the transition in some other way (e.g., it involves less discomfort).
What we do know is that it helps the holy souls somehow. There is even biblical warrant for this, as illustrated by the prayers offered by Judah Maccabee and his men for those who had died in battle defending the cause of Israel but still tainted by wearing superstitious charms (2 Maccabees 12).
You might think of the situation as rather like praying for a friend who is at boot camp at the beginning of his military service. Boot camp is designed to take people from a certain physical and mental level and toughen them up so that they will be ready for full military service. You might pray for your friend while he is in boot camp so that the experience goes well with him, is easier on him, but if he completes boot camp at all, he will be brought up to the right level.
We have the assurance that those who experience purgatory will be brought up to the level needed for heaven, but our prayers can still help with that transition.
However, is it O.K. to pray that all of the souls in Purgatory be released and allowed to go to Heaven.
As we said, it’s not that the souls will be allowed to go to heaven, but we can pray for all the souls in purgatory that their final purification will go more easily (in terms of time or difficulty).
In fact, the moment all souls would be released (if God wants to do this), then a new batch would come into Purgatory and take their place. Am I correct in this?
This is possible—at least in our age—depending on how time works in the afterlife.
We don’t really know how time works in the afterlife, though there are clear indications in Scripture that there is some kind of sequentiality that departed souls experience (death, particular judgment, purgatory, heaven, resurrection, final judgment, eternal order). They don’t have the kind of timeless eternity that God does. The trouble is that we don’t know how this sequentiality maps on to time as we experience it. There have been different theories about this over the course of the centuries.
It’s certainly true, though, that if God chose to instantly free all the souls in purgatory at a single moment in time (as we experience it) in the present age of the world then new souls would quickly appear in purgatory as people pass into the afterlife.
It may even be that this happens regularly, since purgatory may not take time as we know it. In a book that he wrote on eschatology (the study of the last things) before he was Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that purgatory may have an “existential” duration rather than the kind of extended-through-time duration we experience. If so then souls might pop into purgatory for an existential moment, be purified and transitioned to heaven, and then be replaced by new souls continuously.
That wouldn’t affect our prayers for them, though, since God is not bound by time at all (he is truly outside of it altogether) and so can apply our prayers—no matter when in time we make them—to a person at the point (existential or temporal) when they are being purified.
Or, are we only supposed to pray for people we know that have died?
It’s definite not the case that we should only pray for those who we personally know. We are most welcome, and even encouraged, to pray for all the souls in purgatory, whether we knew them in this life or not.
That’s why the Church has designated November 2 as All Souls Day. It is the liturgical commemoration of all the holy souls in purgatory, in which the Church (and we as members of the Church) pray for all who have died in God’s friendship but who still need purification.
Incidentally, I’ve devoted a particular installment of my Secret Information Club mailings to Pope Benedict’s teaching on purgatory, so if you’d like to know more about what Pope Benedict has said on this subject, I’d encourage you to join the Jimmy Akin Secret Information Club (www.SecretInfoClub.com), and one of the (hopefully) fascinating things that you’ll receive in your email inbox will be devoted to this very subject!
I hope this helps!
What do you think?