Hope, the Holy Souls in Purgatory, and St. Thomas More

The Holy Souls in Purgatory have been judged by God to be destined for happiness in Heaven. They are being prepared for Heaven by the help and the grace of the Holy Spirit, and we participate in their final preparations by our prayers and sacrifices.

George Frederic Watts, “Hope” (1886)
George Frederic Watts, “Hope” (1886) (photo: Public Domain)

This article originally appeared at the Register on Nov. 7, 2016.


“I hope the Chicago Cubs win the World Series at last this year”—anyone who said that has seen his hopes fulfilled in 2016. Any Catholic who has said that has seen those hopes fulfilled on All Souls Day in 2016.

As hopeful as Chicago Cubs fans have been for the past 107 years in spite of the prediction of their continual defeat, the Holy Souls in Purgatory exemplify Hope, the theological virtue, much more fully. During the month of November, as we the living pray for our beloved dead, we join in the fullness of that Hope.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Hope as “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (Paragraph 1817)


Hopeful, Holy Souls

The Holy Souls in Purgatory—we often call them the Poor Souls, but they are richer than we are in a way—have been judged by God to be destined for happiness in Heaven; they cannot rely at all on their own strength; they are being prepared for Heaven by the help and the grace of the Holy Spirit, and we participate in their final preparations by our prayers and sacrifices. What they have hoped for is closer to them now than a two-run lead in the eighth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. They know their hopes will be fulfilled—just delayed (until the tenth inning?).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also defines the condition of the Holy Souls in Purgatory, citing the near fulfillment of their Hope: “All 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.” (Paragraph 1031)

To reverse Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon title, they are “The Saved in the Hands of a Merciful God”. While they undergo that purification, however, they can’t pray for themselves. So we the living pray for them to hasten their purification, having Masses offered, giving alms, and making other sacrifices.


St. Thomas More and “The Supplication of Souls”

St. Thomas More wrote his 1529 “The Supplication of Souls” to defend the doctrine of Purgatory and the devotion of prayer for the dead against attacks in pre-Reformation England. Anticipating Pope Benedict XVI—who said that if Purgatory did not exist, we would have to invent it— by five centuries, More comments that Reason, not to mention God’s mercy and justice, demands that Purgatory exist:

“For since God in His righteousness will not leave sin unpunished and in His goodness will not perpetually punish the sin after the person’s repentance, it follows there must be temporal punishment. And now since the person often dies before undergoing such punishment . . . a very child, almost, can see the conclusion: that the punishment remaining due and undone at death is to be endured and sustained afterward.”  (p. 135 in Scepter Publishers’ edition, rendered in Modern English by Mary Gottschalk)

The Souls in Purgatory accept that they should undergo this purification in accord with God’s mercy and justice, noting that neither they nor the living should presume on God’s mercy, but submit to His justice. While they suffer in Purgatory, the Souls fear that they will be forgotten if the attacks against prayers and Masses for them influence their families—as we are too really to presume that our beloved dead are in Heaven and neglect to pray for them.


Purgatory and the Holy Mass

As the Protestant Reformation was developing on the Continent and coming to England through books and certain followers of Lutheran ideas, Thomas More saw the danger in the attacks on Purgatory. In his book “The Supplication of Souls” More was answering a pamphlet, “A Supplication for the Beggars” by Simon Fish.

Fish charged that Masses and prayers for the dead diverted alms from the poor and he urged Henry VIII to destroy the priesthood, force priests to get married and get jobs, and thus eradicate Masses for the dead, for which priests received stipends.

More knew how dangerous this suggestion was: not only would prayer for the dead, the great bond between the living and the dead, be destroyed, but also the ministerial priesthood, and the Sacrifice of the Mass. The whole economy of salvation and the communion of saints were at stake, so he answered Fish’s pamphlet as creatively and persuasively as he could. More hoped, through his apologetics, to preserve Hope in Heavenly happiness in England before it could be destroyed by false teaching.


“Gladly to bear my purgatory here.

Five years after writing “The Supplication of Souls”, Thomas More was imprisoned in the Tower of London after refusing to swear the required oaths. More used the time—more than a year— to prepare for death.

His “A Godly Meditation” contains several petitions about repentance and detachment, asking God to grant him:

 To bewail my sins and, for the purging of them, patiently to suffer adversity. 
Gladly to bear my purgatory here. To be joyful in tribulations. To walk the narrow way that leads to life. 
To have the last thing in remembrance. To have ever before my eyes my death that is ever at hand. To make death no stranger to me. To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of Hell. To pray for pardon before the judge comes. . . . 
To buy the time again that I have lost. . .

So St. Thomas More practiced the virtue of Hope, as the Catechism describes it in paragraph 1818: Hope purified him, kept him from discouragement, and sustained him “during times of abandonment”; it opened “up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude.”  “Buoyed up by hope” More was “preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.” Thus he was able before his execution to express the hope that he and his family, his judges, his jailor, and even his king, would “meet merrily in Heaven”, placing trust in God’s promises and relying on His grace and mercy.