Praying for the Dead: Duty and Privilege

A daughter prays for the repose of her mother’s soul every day — and for all of the holy souls, especially in November, the month dedicated to the holy souls.

Detail of 'A Procession in the Catacomb of Callistus' (Alberto Pisa, 1905), Inscriptions in the catacombs include prayers for the dead.
Detail of 'A Procession in the Catacomb of Callistus' (Alberto Pisa, 1905), Inscriptions in the catacombs include prayers for the dead. (photo: Wikipedia)

After my mother died in October 2011 from cancer, I threw myself into cleaning her home. The last six months of her illness she hadn’t able to do any housework. As I cleaned in every corner, I contemplated the afterlife, wondering whether she was in heaven or purgatory and weighing her many virtues compared to her faults. Engrossed in organizing and dusting, I would unexpectedly happen upon books on purgatory, and each time I felt jarred — wondering if it was a coincidence or message.

My mom had a strong devotion to the holy souls and prayed for them often. Even before she became ill, she would tell us to make sure that the priest who buried her did not eulogize about her saintliness. She was brought up to believe that Catholics had a duty to pray for the dead, and not only was it our obligation; it was our privilege.


Straight-to-Heaven-for-All Illusion

Dutch psychologist Gerard van den Aardweg, author of Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages and Warnings From Purgatory (Tan, 2009), thinks Catholics today have a general disinterest in the “Four Last Things” — death, judgment, heaven and hell. “We are children of our age of superficiality and lust of ease,” Van den Aardweg told me. “Many Catholics live on the surface of things and are not really waked up by their spiritual shepherds from their wishful dreams, such as ‘everyone goes straight to heaven.’ They have few moral qualms about whether their lifestyle is incompatible with the will of God and with their Catholic faith.”

Van den Aardweg added, “There’s a deceptive, arrogant mentality predominant in the Christian and Catholic world, which ‘loves an exclusively cheerful religion.’ As Blessed John Henry Newman already foresaw in the 19th century: Sin would come to be seen as merely a fault or human weakness, Christians would think God’s mercy condones everything, and ‘punishment’ and ‘penance’ would be considered medieval ideas.”

Modern Catholics, compared to my mom who grew up pre-Vatican II, may be less informed about the Church’s teaching on purgatory and the needs of the holy souls.

Susan Tassone, author of numerous books on purgatory, commented, “Purgatory hasn’t been promoted by a segment of the clergy, who, post-Vatican II, found it embarrassing. Purgatory and praying for the holy souls was not fashionable in some seminaries in the '60s, '70s and into the '80s. Thankfully, the tide is turning.”

She continued, “Also, the catechetical materials used were insufficient. Therefore, young people were not properly instructed about the faith, the saints, sin, grace, heaven, hell and purgatory.”

Father Arnold Miller, priest at Our Lady of the Valley in Caldwell, Idaho, contributed this to the discussion: “I think that priests today avoid preaching on purgatory because afterwards people often write an email saying that they’re sure their deceased loved one is in heaven. All of us are weeds and wheat; when one dies whom we love, we can often see only the wheat.” 


Paying Our Debts

The word “justice” appears in the Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible 371 times. This indicates that God, who values justice, will expect each of us to pay our debts after death if we haven’t paid for them fully on earth.

Colin Donovan, vice president for theology for EWTN, told me this about purgatory: “It is a place where debts that were within our power to have paid before getting to the Judge (at death), but which weren’t paid, are repaired. Christ paid the impossible debt — the eternal punishment due to repentant mortal sin — but to the extent that we are able, we must settle our lesser debts on the way to the Judge, Christ, or be imprisoned until they are paid. That is purgatory.”

In the chapter “Reproaches Which the Souls in Purgatory Make to People in the World” of her Treatise on Purgatory, St. Catherine of Genoa wrote, "You have all taken shelter beneath hope in God’s mercy, which is, you say, very great, but you see not that this great goodness of God will judge you for having gone against the will of so good a Lord. His goodness should constrain you to do all his will, not give you hope in ill-doing; for his justice cannot fail, but in one way or another must need be fully satisfied.”

The beauty in all of this is that the soul understands the need for perfection in order to be in the Lord’s presence. In Tassone’s latest book, Prayers, Promises and Devotions for the Holy Souls in Purgatory (OSV, 2012), she includes quotes from saints, popes and one from Anglican author and apologist C.S. Lewis that stands out. “‘Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they?” Lewis asks. “Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here, and no one will upbraid you with these things nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know.’ — ‘Even so, sir.’”


Ultimate Act of Mercy

The souls in purgatory need our prayers and personal sacrifices because they can no longer gain merit for themselves. It is our duty as the living, the Church Militant, to pray for the Church Suffering, the souls in purgatory, so that their debts may be paid and they may join the Church Triumphant in heaven. “Our charity and gratitude not only demand that we pray for them, but our faith requires our prayers to help them reach their eternal reward. It’s also in our own personal interest, since one day we may expect others to help us in the same way,” Tassone said.

Van den Aardweg added, “They [souls in purgatory] afford the opportunity to practice a kind of charity that is very meritorious in God’s eyes.”

Praying, almsgiving, offering Masses and mortifications for the souls are the ultimate acts of charity because we are helping to deliver the powerless from unimaginable suffering. “They experience an intense physical burning. Most of this burning is caused by an excruciating craving for God, since the soul is deeply wounded by God’s love for him/her when it caught a glimpse of him at his personal judgment just after death,” said Van den Aardweg.

“The soul in purgatory, however, suffers peacefully, without a shadow of complaining, profoundly thankful for God’s mercy and full of hope. St. Francis of Sales thinks it even experiences ineffable joys which flow from its love of God. At the same time, its severe ‘physical’ and emotional pains continue unimaginably nevertheless.”


No Prayers Are Wasted

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Our prayer for them is capable of not only helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (958). Tassone added this: “They are concerned about our salvation; their prayers help us to recognize our faults, so we can understand the malice of sin. They have tremendous resolve in assisting us to become holy and go directly to heaven.”

Finally, if a loved one is already in heaven, our prayers are not wasted. “Attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas is the term ‘accidental glory,’ which means that no prayer is ever wasted with God,” Tassone said. “If the soul is in heaven, it receives an increase in its intimacy of God’s love and an increase in its own intercessory power.”

I pray for the repose of my mother’s soul every day — and for all of the holy souls, especially in November, the month dedicated to the holy souls. I feel like it is the last and most important deed a daughter can do for her mother.

Register correspondent Lori Hadacek Chaplin writes from Idaho.


To have Masses said for a loved one, visit the Pious Union of St. Joseph for the Suffering and Dying.