National Catholic Register


Reaching Out to Purgatory—And Avoiding It

BY Andrew Walther

November 04-11, 2001 Issue | Posted 11/4/01 at 1:00 PM


KANSAS CITY, Kan.—Can you really initiate contact with the dead online?

November is the month of the dead, when the Catholic Church remembers the faithful departed—many of whose road to heaven after death includes a detour to purgatory, a place of suffering and purification.

Maria Compton-Hernandez, a Catholic mother of seven in Kansas City, has been promoting devotion to and prayer for those in purgatory via a Web site for several years. Her Web site,—those in purgatory are usually referred to as the poor souls or the holy souls—includes information on purgatory, and prayers for those there.

Because of her mother's devotion, “I developed a real devotion to the poor souls,” said Compton-Hernandez.

A great number of Catholics over the last few decades have “lost many traditions including praying for the holy souls,” she said. “There is a lack of understanding for the poor souls.”

Compton-Hernandez said people who contact her through the Web site are often “floored because they don't know the Catholic Church still teaches this.”

Others who contact her are “interested in renewing the devotion” to the poor souls, she said. She considers this very important because “the Church teaches that we can pray for them, and they can pray for us, but they cannot pray for themselves.”

In addition, she said she refers people with serious theological questions about purgatory to the Catechism of the Catholic Church or to the priests at for more detailed theological information.

Missionary of Perpetual Adoration Father Charles Carpenter, who taught for several years at the seminary in Obregon, Mexico, said, “Purgatory is real, and people go there.” Like Compton-Hernandez, he pointed out that those in purgatory rely on the prayers of the living to reduce their period of purification and suffering.

People end up in purgatory, according to Father Carpenter, “to make up for the sins they committed, to be purified ... of attachment to evil,” and to achieve the holiness necessary for entry into heaven.

Friends of the Dead

Several saints have had devotion to the poor souls. St. Nicholas of Tolentino, an Augustinian priest who died in the 14th century, is known as one of the patrons of the holy souls. In the 20th century, recently Beatified Capuchin Padre Pio was a great advocate for those in purgatory.

According to Charles Mandina, who spent several months working with Padre Pio in the 1960s, it was common knowledge in San Giovanni, the town where the priest lived, “that the souls in purgatory would come to Padre Pio's Masses to thank him for their liberation.”

Mandina also cited the book The Holy Souls: Viva Padre Pio, by one of Padre Pio's confreres, Padre Allessio Parente. The priest recounts numerous stories of Padre Pio's interaction with those in purgatory, and the sacrifices Padre Pio made on their behalf to shorten their period in purgatory.

One such soul for whom Padre Pio prayed was that of a friar who had to return after death in the chapel of Padre Pio's monastery.

Initially unaware that the friar he saw walking around the chapel was in fact a spirit, Padre Pio questioned what he was doing. The friar replied: “I am doing my purgatory here. I was a student in this friary, so I now have to make amends for the errors I committed while I was here, for my lack of diligence in doing my duty in this Church.”

It turned out that this particular friar had died 60 years before, which caused Padre Pio to worry about “how much longer and more difficult” purgatory would be for those who had committed sins greater than a “lack of diligence.”

Catholic theologians, saints and mystics have all cautioned that the suffering in purgatory is dire. Among many others, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Genoa and Blessed Padre Pio have all described the suffering that souls endure in purgatory in the most extreme terms. According to Padre Pio, “The souls in purgatory would like to throw themselves in a well of our earthly fire, because for them it would be like a well of cool water.”

Father Carpenter thinks that a great many people end up in purgatory. “According to St. Teresa of Avila,” he explained, “only four people that she knew in her lifetime went straight to heaven.” And of those four, he said, at least one is now canonized.

The Church's Teaching

The Church has long taught that purgatory exists, and formalized the teaching at the Councils of Florence and of Trent, in the 15th and 16th centuries, respectively. The belief is based in part on Old Testament references to prayers for the dead, especially that in the book of Maccabees.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1472): “To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called purgatory.

“This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.”

Pope John Paul II too has urged Catholics to pray for those in purgatory. He wrote a letter to the Abbot of Cluny in 1998 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the establishment of the feast of All Souls by St. Odillo, who had been an abbot at that monastery. The Holy Father stated:

“I therefore encourage Catholics to pray fervently for the dead, for their family members, and for all our brothers and sisters who have died, that they may obtain the remission of the punishments due to their sins and may hear the Lord's call: ‘Come, O my dear soul, to eternal repose in the arms of my goodness, which has prepared eternal delights for you.’”

Avoiding Purgatory

Father Carpenter agrees with Padre Pio that the best way to avoid purgatory is to accept the suffering that God sends into our lives. “Suffering is purifying,” Father Carpenter explained, and it can “allow you to pay your debt here,” which is “better” than doing it in purgatory where the suffering is much greater. Indulgences too can blot out the punishment due to sin according to the Catechism (No. 1498).

Prayers and good deeds can also be applied to those in purgatory to shorten the duration of their suffering, as Padre Pio, Nicholas of Tolentino and many others have done. And Maria Compton- Hernandez is quick to point out that we should not only pray for them, but should also ask them to pray for us. “They are strong prayer warriors,” she pointed out, “since they are assured of salvation.”

Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.