Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Helping the Poor Souls

by Fr. Joseph Stang


From the earliest days the Church has offered prayers for the departed. The Fathers relate how the Apostles themselves celebrated the commemoration of the dead. The most ancient monuments of Christian art give expression to the prayers of the first Christians for their departed brethren, and to the invocation of the saints on their behalf. Catholic piety and charity have ever sought to manifest in a godly and effective manner their loving recollection of the dead.

Larger Work

The Ecclesiastial Review



Publisher & Date

American Ecclesiastical Review for the Catholic University of America, November, 1942

From the earliest days the Church has offered prayers for the departed. The Fathers relate how the Apostles themselves celebrated the commemoration of the dead. The most ancient monuments of Christian art give expression to the prayers of the first Christians for their departed brethren, and to the invocation of the saints on their behalf. Catholic piety and charity have ever sought to manifest in a godly and effective manner their loving recollection of the dead.

In the course of centuries the Church has instituted new feasts and devotions. The faithful would individually practice such devotions, or local churches would celebrate such feasts until the Church sanctioned the practice and made it universal for all the faithful. This is the history of All Souls' Day. It was not until the eleventh century that the commemoration of all the faithful departed on the Second of November was publicly approved and introduced into the universal Church. Long before, however, individual churches and individual bishops and abbots had set aside a special day for the commemoration of All Souls.

St. Peter Damian relates in his life of St. Odilo, Abbot of Clugny, how this saint about the year 1000 ordered an All Souls' Day to be celebrated in the monasteries of his order on the Second day of November, similar to the manner it is celebrated today. It seems that a pious religious, returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, was wrecked upon an unknown island. Here he met a hermit who informed him that in the vicinity of his cell he frequently heard terrible cries of evil spirits, lamenting that the prayers and good works of the faithful for the departed were disturbing to them, for they released or greatly relieved the souls who had been given over to them for torment. They expressed a particular hatred against the Abbot Odilo and his monks for their extraordinary zeal in behalf of these souls. Upon his return the religious, at the request of the hermit, communicated this information to Odilo, who was thereby more inflamed with devotion, and instituted the Second of November for an annual commemoration of the faithful departed. It was at the instance of the abbot that Pope John XIX introduced this annual commemoration into the various dioceses, in Liege, in Vienna and Tours, where it was observed as a day of obligation; in England, where the Council of Oxford in 1222 commanded it to be celebrated as a feast of second class.

Although the All Souls' Day of St. Odilo may have given occasion to the universal celebration, it was not the first observance of its kind. The historian Mabillon states that in the Order of St. Benedict an All Souls' Day was celebrated before the time of Odilo, on the day after Pentecost or Trinity Sunday. From the annals of the monastery of Fulda, it is inferred that such a day was observed in Germany as early as 874. They relate how King Louis in a vision during Lent beheld his father, Louis the Pious, in Purgatory. Soon after he issued a circular to all bishops and abbots of his kingdom enjoining special prayers for the faithful departed. Amalarius, in the eighth century, mentions an annual commemoration of the Departed in his book on the Divine Office, and he connects the feast of All Saints with the office of the dead. In an old Missal of Arles, the service for the dead is appointed for the first day after the Octave of Epiphany, in the same order as it is now observed on All Souls' Day.

Even in the third century, we have the testimony of Tertullian that the Christians of his day observed an annual commemoration of the Faithful Departed. Thus, All Souls' Day and devotion for the poor souls dates back to the first centuries and was observed by the faithful in different countries. The time of celebration differed from our own, but the same idea suggested the selection of the time. It was celebrated at the end of a cycle of feasts, of Christmastide, of Eastertide, as it is celebrated today when the feasts of the ecclesiastical year have culminated in the feast of All Saints.

In All For Jesus, Father Faber says, "It is not saying too much to call devotion to the holy souls a kind of centre in which all Catholic devotions meet and which satisfies more than any other single devotion our duties in that way, because it is a devotion all of love and of disinterested love." Purgatory is a white field for the harvest of God's glory. Not a prayer can be said for the Holy Souls but God is glorified both by the faith and the charity of the prayer. Not an alleviation, however trifling, can befall any one of the souls but God is forthwith glorified by the honor of his Son's Precious Blood and the approach of the soul to bliss. Not a soul is delivered from its trials, but God is glorified. He crowns his own gifts in that soul. The Cross of Christ has triumphed. The decree of predestination is victoriously accomplished and there is a new worshipper in Heaven.

St. Catherine of Genoa in her treatise on Purgatory says, "They would not care for alms contributed by the living to shorten their period of pain were not they precisely balanced by the will of God; they leave all in His hands Who exacts satisfaction as it pleases His infinite goodness. And could they retard those alms apart from the divine will it would be an act of selfishness which could prevent their serving the Divine Will. They remain immovably fixed on whatever God wills for them and neither pleasure nor pain can ever again cause them to turn to self."

The Souls in Purgatory depend on us, and devotion on their behalf should be fostered in every Christian family. I had deeply religious parents who taught us to pray daily for the poor souls. Whenever we heard the church bells tolling, conveying the information that someone in the parish had died, our good mother made us leave our beds, even if it were in the middle of the night, and we all knelt down and prayed for the departed soul. On the following day all would offer their prayers and attendance at Mass for the particular soul. Respect for priests, the ambassadors of Christ, was instilled into our hearts from our infancy. My father pointed out that many times a priest who had sacrificed his all for the people is forgotten after he has left this world, and that gratitude should urge us never to forget our priests, and especially the most forgotten priests in purgatory.

The holy sacrifice of the Mass is of course the most effective means of helping the holy souls. Father Boniface Wimmer, O.S.B., later founder and Archabbot of St. Vincent, Latrobe, Pa., wrote in America: "In our monastery of St. Vincent one of our novices saw on the Eighteenth of September 1859 a vision of a Benedictine monk in choir habit. This monk appeared to him each day between 11 A.M. and noon or from midnight to 2 A.M. On the Nineteenth of November the novice in the presence of a confrére asked the vision if anything could be done. The answer was, 'I am suffering in purgatory already for seventy-six years because I did not say seventeen Masses, which I was supposed to say. I appeared to several other Benedictines but have not been helped. If you do not come to my aid I have to appear for eleven more years yet!' The vision demanded that seven Masses should be offered; that the novice should make a seven days retreat and observe strict silence, and that during thirty-three days he should recite daily with outstretched arms thrice the Psalm Miserere mei. All these requests were complied with from the twenty-first of November to the twenty-third of December, and on that last day after the last Mass the vision disappeared. Many times the poor soul begged the novice in the most touching manner to pray for the poor souls who suffer so terribly, and told how grateful they would be to their benefactors."

In the Austrian Tyrol, it was customary on New Years' Eve for the night watchman carrying a lantern to lead a crowd to the cemetery where they stopped before the great crucifix. When the church clock struck midnight, the watchman solemnly made the following address: "To you dear souls whose bodies rest in this cemetery, to the dear souls of our dear parents and former friends and acquaintances and to all those who have been forgotten for a long time, we wish to you all a graceful happy New Year. How we wish that you will all enjoy the bliss of heaven! May none of you be condemned to the pains of hell. But to you dear souls who are still suffering in Purgatory we wish a speedy deliverance from your suffering, and the eternal joys of heaven. And we who are assembled here, let us remember that perhaps many of us may be buried in this cemetery before the New Year is over. For the poor souls, and for our own poor souls, let us say devoutly five Our Fathers and Hail Marys, 'Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord.'" Certainly this was a beautiful custom.

It would be well for the priest to consider how definitely Catholic is All Souls' Day and how definitely Catholic is the doctrine of Purgatory. Indeed, Purgatory is a kind of "universalism" in that it breathes of Christian charity and justice. Purgatory means that God is loving, understanding and just, and that He loves all His children and desires them for Himself. He would purge a soul of its sin so long as that soul had not become totally corrupt.

There have been many tragic distortions of Christian truth since the Reformation. Protestantism has lost a true understanding of God's nature and God's justice. Calvin made God a cruel tyrant, a thousand Hitlers crowded into one. He insisted that God demanded perfection in every soul here on this earth, to be achieved within a few short years; failure meant eternal punishment. The inevitable result was that there developed among Protestants a "liberal" view of human destiny which, known as "universalism", went to the opposite extreme and declared that all souls are predestined to be saved. Such a doctrine was flagrant heresy and obviously unreasonable.

Nothing is clearer to the Catholic than that "free thinking" or thinking outside of Christian dogma, leads inevitably to all sorts of vagaries and grotesque theories. Particularly is this apparent in the doctrines that have grown up outside the Catholic Church. Here in the United States many have wandered so far away as to forget Christ entirely and adopt pagan and Buddhist ideas. They have recoiled from Calvinism and vainly seek truth and consolation in exotic religions. Cults have displaced the Church, and men embrace the reincarnation theory of "theosophy" or the meaningless abstractions of Christian Science because they do not know the truth regarding human destiny as taught and practiced in the true Church of Christ.

There is something tragic about these blind gropings, in the futile attempts to find spiritual peace and understanding. Men want to believe in God and in Divine Love and Divine Justice, but they are confused by doctrines of the future life which seem cruel and unfair, which divide the "sheep and the goats" so ruthlessly and give a soul absolutely no chance beyond the grave, unless that soul here on earth had found complete salvation.

To the Catholic, All Souls' Day is a day of hope as well as significance. A Catholic prays for the souls in purgatory because he knows that God's love is boundless and that God's justice is perfect. The Catholic priest has the opportunity and obligation to preach and teach the Catholic truths which are inherent in All Souls' Day. Everlasting punishment awaits the sinner who tenaciously and deliberately rebels against God, but there is a Purgatory of suffering from which many will ultimately be delivered to know the bliss of Heaven. What a solace it is for Christians to know that they can do something for their departed dear ones, that they can pray for them and that their sacrifices and prayers will be answered.

For the priest, All Souls' Day is a precious feast illustrating and teaching divine love and justice. The priest sees Purgatory, to quote a recent writer, "as an evidence of God's mercy. For the Sovereign Lord is infinitely merciful as well as infinitely just and holy. He permits men to expiate their faults, and thus to regain their pristine holiness. He 'whose attribute it is always to show mercy and to spare,' allows His justice to be tempered by mercy. 'Mercy and truth have met each other; justice and peace have kissed'" (Ps. 84:11) .

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