When the liturgical calendar rolls around to November, our thoughts rightly go to the faithful departed. This holds true not just on the first two days of the month — Nov. 1 is the feast of All Saints; Nov. 2 is dedicated to All Souls — but right up to the start of Advent.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition. We ask the saints to pray for us in heaven while we pray for the poor souls to complete their journey through purgatory and into heaven (even though their eventual arrival there is assured).
For some of us, the poor souls (also known as the holy souls) are in our prayers all year. Take the young-adult members of the Dead Theologians Society, for example. Praying for the poor souls is part of their mission.
Begun in 1997 in Ohio, the Dead Theologians Society seeks to inspire teens and young adults to become “the saints of tomorrow.” Open to kids in grades nine through 12 as well as young adults as old as 24, the group lives by a motto that says it all: “Dead to the world, alive in Christ.”
Twelve years after its initial launch, the apostolate is active in 300 parishes in 45 states, as well as Canada, the Philippines and Guam. (The group is online at DeadTheologiansSociety.com.)
According to Eddie Cotter Jr., the group’s founder, praying for the poor souls has been a charism of society meetings from the start. It came about as the founding members tried to come up with a service component for the group that would unite young people around a sanctifying cause.
“There were some good ideas tossed around, like feeding the hungry or cleaning a part of the highway, but there were groups already doing these types of things,” recalls Cotter. “When we prayed and discussed with the teens the idea of praying for the souls in purgatory, we felt that that was something all of us could do regardless of ability or disability.”
Cotter explains that local chapters use the prayer of St. Gertrude the Great for the holy souls each week. The prayer comes after the group’s recitation of the Rosary. (See “Prayer of St. Gertrude” on page B2.)
Praying for the poor souls — a spiritual work of mercy — has been met with great zeal, says Cotter.
“All these high schoolers, as well as the adults who help facilitate the group, had loved ones who have died,” he adds. “There was a genuine enthusiasm when we realized that there was actually something that we could do that could benefit them.”
Olivia Smithmier-Bohn, 18, remembers well her introduction to prayers for the poor souls in purgatory. As a high-school freshman, she attended her first meeting of the Dead Theologians Society at St. Mary’s Catholic Church near Madison, Wis.
“I was immediately struck and intrigued by this prayer for the poor souls,” she says. “I loved it and grew to love it more.”
At first, she recalls, it all seemed “too easy.” Smithmier-Bohn felt she should be doing more. So she went to talk to a priest who told her that one bite from the forbidden fruit “lost sanctifying grace for all mankind. God delights in the simple.”
“This profound and simple insight helps me grow a lot spiritually,” explains the freshman from Franciscan University of Steubenville. “It was a calling from the Lord. Though I may not do great things, if I can do this small thing with the greatest of love, why should I not do it daily?”
Small Things, Great Love
Charlene Rack has been a Dead Theologians Society leader in the greater Cincinnati area for the past several years. She has seen similar reactions in the teens she leads.
Rack says the key to making this devotion come alive is by making it tangible in the lives of the teens. The more the kids know about St. Gertrude and the story behind her prayer, she says, the more they make it their own.
“I have always made a point to make things more understandable, more attainable to the teens themselves so that it means more to them,” says Rack.
This has led to what she describes as a greater awareness of the dead and the need to pray for them. When it comes time for the adolescents to offer petitions, Rack says, invariably there are teens praying for deceased loved ones.
“They always mention people who have died,” says Rack. “Once they know that we are doing the St. Gertrude the Great prayer, they always mention friends or relatives who have died.”
It probably helps that Rack practices what she preaches. The mother of three older teens says that the prayers for those in purgatory are part of her own family’s prayer life. Also, she explains that she makes a point to pray for anybody who has died that day.
“Being a leader in the Dead Theologians Society has given me an awareness of the need to pray for the dead,” says Rack. “Before, I might not have seen a need for it — but now I am very much aware of it and want to make others aware of it, as well.”
Father Richard Simon, pastor of St. Lambert’s Catholic Church in Skokie, Ill., and frequent host of Relevant Radio’s program “Go Ask Your Father,” says that the Church’s teaching on purgatory is at the very heart of intercessory prayer.
“We pray for the poor souls to help them get to heaven. And they intercede for us to help us get to heaven,” explains Father Simon. “Their job, so to speak, is to intercede for us.”
At Dead Theologians’ headquarters, Cotter attributes the fast growth and success of the apostolate to this very intercessory power.
“We believe that because we are praying for the suffering souls and they are praying for us, we attribute the growth of the apostolate to that intercessory prayer,” says Cotter. “We continue to grow — and we do not have a huge marketing budget or department.”
Cotter estimates that in the 12 years of the society’s existence, more than 10,000 young people have participated in its prayer experience.
“I believe that the majority of those kids continue to pray for the dead even when they are no longer in the program,” he says. “That is a lot of prayer power from young people. We are answering that call to empty purgatory for the poor souls.”
Father Simon shares Cotter’s passion for this work. He says that praying for the holy souls in purgatory isn’t just a November event, but should be a part of our daily prayers all year.
“Love does not stop at the grave,” says the priest. “Those who die in the Lord are not dead.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Prayer of St. Gertrude
Eternal Father, I offer thee the most precious blood of thy divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal Church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.
The Church celebrates the feast of St. Gertrude the Great (d. 1334) on Nov. 16.