All Souls’ Day: Praying for the Faithful Departed

COMMENTARY: Fulfilling our Christian duty on All Souls’ Day and during the month of November

Throughout this month of November, and throughout our lives, we owe the deceased our prayers
Throughout this month of November, and throughout our lives, we owe the deceased our prayers (photo: wawritto / Shutterstock)

November is the Month of All Souls. We pray for the souls of all the faithful departed in purgatory. It makes sense for us to reflect on the doctrine of purgatory and its roots — and of our need to pray for the departed.

What Is Purgatory?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following on purgation and purgatory: “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 attain 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” (1030-1031).

Why is it necessary for most of us? Jesus declared that we must “be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48; Revelation 3:2). Other Scriptures also teach that we are called to ultimate perfection (e.g., 2 Corinthians 7:1; James 1:4). Further, heaven is described in the Bible as a place of those who have been made perfect (Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 21:27).

The Church takes these promises of ultimate perfection very seriously. If that perfection is not attained by the time of death, then, before entering heaven, the Church understands from the word of God that we must undergo a final purification.

Hence, the need for purgation flows from the promises of God that we shall one day be perfect.

Exactly how this purgation (or purification) is carried out is not revealed explicitly. Some have used the image of fire, based on certain Scripture texts (e.g., 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, Isaiah 6:5-7; Malachi 3:2-3). There is also a tender image of Jesus wiping away the tears of those who have died (e.g., Revelation 21:4).

A Biblical Teaching

Some have dismissed the Catholic teaching on purgatory, calling it unbiblical. This is untrue. Though the word “purgatory” does not appear in the Bible, the teaching about it does. We do well, then, to examine some Bible texts and thereby learn that purgatory is a biblical teaching.

Consider another passage from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

“Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation [of Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire(1 Corinthians 3:13-15).

Hence, each person’s work will be judged; it will be tested by fire. Some shall receive reward. Others will suffer loss.

Ultimately, there are souls who will be saved, but “only as through fire,” according to the text. Thus, there seems to be a sort of purification accomplished for some. On the day of judgment, what is imperfect or unbecoming will be burned away, and what is good will be purified.

Now, this entry unto salvation “through fire” cannot be in heaven since there is no pain and loss is not suffered there. Nor can it be hell since that is an eternal fire from which there is no escape (Matthew 25:41).

Hence, there must be some place of purifying fire through which some pass in the life to come.

Our Catholic tradition calls this purgatory.

Consider another passage: In Matthew 12:32, Our Lord says, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

This text implies that there is the forgiveness of some sins to be had in the world to come. But where could this place be? It cannot be heaven since there is no sin to be forgiven there (Revelation 21:27). It cannot be hell since forgiveness is not granted there, and there is no escape (Luke 16:26). Hence, there must be some third place in the “age to come” where the forgiveness of sin can be experienced.

Catholic Tradition and teaching calls this purgatory. Here, individuals in a state of friendship with God and faith in him may receive forgiveness for certain sins committed in life and be purged of the effects of those sins.

These scriptural texts have been reviewed to show that the Catholic teaching on purgatory does have biblical basis. There are others as well, (e.g., 2 Maccabees 12:43-46; Matthew 5:25).

The claim by some that Catholic teaching on this matter is “unbiblical” is thus unfounded. There is a biblical basis and foundation for the Church to teach that after death a purification is both available and in many cases necessary.

A Reasonable Teaching

Scripture teaches that heaven is a place of perfect happiness, where there is no more sorrow or pain, no more death, and no more tears (Revelations 21:23-24). And we are thus exhorted here on earth to “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). And regarding heaven, Scripture says, “But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27). Christ also teaches us very solemnly, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

But what happens to those who die in a state of grace and friendship with God but are not yet perfect? We can likely see there are still some rough edges to our personality and that we still struggle with certain habitual sins and shortcomings. Likewise, most of us carry within us certain sorrows, regrets or misunderstandings from the past. Despite effort, we may have not been able to fully let go of these things. It is clear that we cannot take any of this with us to heaven. If we did, it would not be a place of perfect joy and total sinlessness.

Thus, presuming that we die in a state of grace and friendship with God, Christ will surely complete his work in us (for he is faithful to his promises) by purging us of whatever imperfections, venial sins or sorrowful effects of sins that still remain. Further, all punishments due to sin are completed.

Praying for the Dead

It is therefore a proper and holy disposition to pray for those who have died and may well be undergoing purification. Many of the saints speak of our prayers for the dead as being something they really need and can benefit from. Tradition says, though the dead in purgatory can pray for us, they cannot pray for themselves, and they very much need our prayers.

Throughout this month of November, and throughout our lives, we owe the deceased our prayers and the wish for each of them: “that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion at the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:4-6).