Pray for the Holy Souls ... and They Will Pray for You

“Offer it up for the holy souls in purgatory.”

In years past, many of us who attended Catholic schools heard those words every time something bad happened. Not a few of us followed through on the advice even though we weren't sure what to make of it.

How many know that it was St. Nicholas of Tolentine who, perhaps more than anyone else, showed just how much those prayers really do help the holy souls — and us? His own feast is celebrated Sept. 10, but there's no better time than All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2, to remember him — and them.

In 1884 Pope Leo XIII declared St. Nicholas the Universal Patron of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. The saint's devotion began one 13th-century night when the voice of a departed brother begged him to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass the next day for his soul and many others. It would deliver their souls, the voice said, from purgatory.

But Nicholas, an Augustinian friar, was assigned to say the community Mass. The voice pleaded, “Then at least come with me … see our suffering … pity these unfortunates who await your help.” Nicholas was then shown a great sea of souls stretching across the land.

He began saying Masses at once. Shortly, the brother appeared again — this time, accompanied by a triumphant multitude.

Nicholas was born in 1245 in Sant'Angelo, Ancona, Italy, and died in 1305 after spending 30 years at the Tolentine monastery. Even before he was ordained, he was already working miracles.

The saint was even more a miracle worker for the departed. “He prayed for the souls in purgatory incessantly with Masses, Divine Office, penances and charity,” says Father William Hodge, pastor of St., Nicholas of Tolentine Church in Atlantic City, N.J. During one Mass, Jesus appeared “to thank him for the fervor he brought to his Masses and gave him an apparition of the holy souls in purgatory released by the graces of his Masses.”

But the sea of these souls isn't waiting for the super-saints alone. Praying for them should be a joyful part and parcel of our spiritual lives everyday. Says Father Hodge: “Don't we want anyone to remember us when we die?”

In a letter last September, Pope John Paul II reminded us that “Christian love knows no boundaries and goes beyond the limits of time and space, enabling us to love those who have already left this earth.”

Why purgatory? “God's justice demands expiation for sins,” observes Susan Tassone, author of the books Praying the in the Presence of Our Lord for the Holy Souls, Praying the Rosary for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, and The Way of the Cross for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. ”God gives us the ability to release souls from purgatory,” she adds. “They're part of the Mystical Body of Christ.”

Tassone explains that the flames of purgatory are not the flames we know on earth, but the burning interior desire for God.

Purgatory isn't a cruel concept, but a most humane doctrine of the Church, notes Father Hodge. “Even after death,” he says, “God's mercy and compassion don't end but follow us.”

Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel expands on this idea. “It's very important to say the joy of the holy souls in purgatory is exceeded only by the joy of the saints in heaven,” he says, referring to the beautiful teachings of St. Catherine of Genoa (born 1447, the year of Nicholas’ canonization). These define purgatory as a ‘place of healing and purification.’ She doesn't say it's a pushover, but it's cleansing.”

Prayers to Purgatory

In contrast, “These people who go about making purgatory sound as horrible as hell violate the decrees of the Council of Trent,” says Father Groeschel. Since Vatican II, he believes, purgatory has too often been neglected. “Most people just reject the whole thing,” he says.

“Just because we don't see the word ‘purgatory’ in the Bible doesn't mean it does not exist,” says Father Hodge. “The same for the word 'Trinity’ — you won't find it in the Bible.”

The foundation for purgatory is laid out in the Old Testament. Judas Maccabeus took a collection for prayers and sacrifices to be offered at the Temple in Jerusalem for the fallen soldiers. “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:43-46). In Matthew, Jesus talks of sin forgiven or not forgiven in this age and the age to come.

In purgatory, souls can't pray for themselves — but we can. It's our duty to help all fellow members of Christ's Mystical Body, starting with our loved ones, says Father Hodge.

The number-one way to do that is to have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered for the Holy Souls. You can also make it your personal intention at any Mass you attend. “That's the most efficacious way to get the souls out of purgatory or relieve their pain,” says Tassone. “You're offering the Body and Blood of Christ, with its infinite merits.”

The Church is resplendent with writings about offering Mass for the dead, says Franciscan Father John Grigus of Marytown, spiritual director of the Chicago archdiocese's Eucharistic-adoration program. “We have clear evidence of prayers for the dead being offered from the earliest times on.” He points out one directive from 140 A.D. that states: “When the faithful dies, obtain salvation for him by celebrating the Eucharist and praying next to his remains.”

Obtaining Graces

The Blessed Virgin Mary is mother of the entire Church, of the living and deceased, reminds Father Grigus. Mary's own Immaculate Heart aids us to obtain these graces for the holy souls.

“The Stations of the Cross are richly indulgenced; they're another means of offering the Passion of Christ,” Tassone points out. Most people don't realize, she adds, that they can gain a plenary or partial indulgence meeting the Church's conditions and apply it to a soul or souls in purgatory to remit their temporal punishment still due for sins already forgiven.

“The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance on behalf of the dead,” affirms the Catechism (No. 1032). Even little sacrifices help immensely. Fast not only from foods, “but from vices with the conscious intention I'm helping my brothers and sisters,” says Father Grigus. Almsgiving to aid the living poor is “also meritorious when done for the benefit of the holy souls,” he says, citing God's call in Isaiah to redress wrongs by giving alms.

If, for example, a deceased person's particular problem was not wanting to share money with the Church, a loved one can give offerings to the Church and for the holy souls on that person's behalf. “That's the most direct, practical way,” says Father Grigus.

All this help is a two-way street. Devotion to the holy souls benefits you because their big job is to help us. “We should implore their prayers,” says Father Groeschel.

“They pray unceasingly for you every day of your life, until you're safely home in heaven,” says Tassone. “Do everything you can to help the souls in purgatory and they will help you avoid [that place].”

“You can't fail if you take your petitions to the holy souls in purgatory,” adds Father Hodge, “because they'll never forget what you did for them.”

Finally, we're obliged to pray for the most forgotten souls in purgatory, says Father Grigus. Many have no one to pray for them, including people not of our tradition who don't believe in purgatory, and those who have not learned about Jesus but who have attempted to live good lives.

Like Nicholas of Tolentine, we can come to their aid and get them an earlier ticket to heaven.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.