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Devotion to the Poor and Rich Souls in Purgatory

by Basil Cole, O.P.


Fr. Basil Cole explains the spiritual status of the souls in Purgatory, and reminds us of their intercessory powers.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, July 1999

Even though the month of November calls forth from the Church a time of prayer for the souls of purgatory and this for centuries, many Catholics have forgotten to pray for the dead on a daily basis simply because they neither go to weekly Mass anymore nor practice this aspect of their faith, even if they occasionally have Masses celebrated for their deceased loved ones. In 1998, the Church celebrated the One Thousandth Anniversary of the introduction of All Souls Day by St. Odillo, the then Abbot of Cluny in France. But, it was not even mentioned by the American Catholic Press nor were there scholarly articles or symposia gathered to discuss the issues around the meaning of the dogma concerning purgatory.

Since the time of St. Pius X, all priests have been given the privilege (once granted only to the Spanish Dominicans from the sixteenth century) of celebrating three Masses on All Souls Day. Since the reform of the practices which gave indulgences to the souls in purgatory, it has been clearly reaffirmed by Paul VI that every Mass, notwithstanding stipend Masses, helps the souls in purgatory.1 To what extent and how each Mass affects purgatory, remains a mystery. Aquinas suggests: ". . . [suffrages] avail for the diminution of punishment or something of the kind that involves no change in the state of the dead."2 In another place, he refers to the help of prayers as "consolation."3 If the fires of purgatory are real as taught by St. Thomas4 among others in the Western Church (but certainly not by the theologians of the Eastern Church), then somehow, this fire might be diminished temporarily or in intensity but he offers no thoughts on this matter. However, in 1840, the then Congregation for Indulgences taught that a plenary indulgence offered to God for someone can of itself free a soul at once from purgatory but this event depends on the good pleasure of God.5

While it is important to keep in mind that Masses for the deceased do help them,6 one Mass offered for anyone living will have a greater efficacy for that person because in this life all are capable of freely cooperating with any grace and the graces of a Mass may even change the direction of someone's life including one's own. However, it may be that a particular grace of a Mass is not accepted for many years which is why one must take a long term view of supplications for loved ones still on earth. Even more, one needs to take an even longer term perspective when praying for the poor souls because we do not see what we are doing to help them. We only know by faith that we are helping them.

The Holy Souls, also known as the poor souls, even the most neglected souls need our prayers because they are in a state of being purified—suffering both for the venial sins which they died with before repentance and for the "dregs" or remains of sin that they were unable to atone or get out of their system while on earth. Since purgatory belongs to "hell"7 in the sense that it is the deprivation of the beatific vision, one must assume that these purifications are something analogous to the pains of the damned but will only exist for interval(s). To say that all is gloom and doom there, however, would be false for reasons that will become clear further on.

To be able to see God with one's mind and take in his being with the love of one's heart which fulfills all one's desires8 requires, according to the teaching of the Church, a special light called the "lumen gloriae."9 But to receive this light, one must be capacitated or readied for it. Any slight obstacle makes the receiving of this light impossible even for God to accomplish. Semblance of sin and seeing God is akin to a contradiction which God himself cannot do. Just as God cannot condemn himself to hell, or create a square circle, so humans with stains of sin cannot see God until those stains are removed. The way these stains or disordered inclinations caused by past personal sins are removed in this life are manifold: penances such as almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Also, certainly some and sometimes even all stains of sin are either diminished or removed when the sacraments such as confession and Holy Communion are fervently received. According to St. Thomas, it is also possible for this to happen when the profession of public vows (or probably now with other sacred bonds used by secular institutes such an oath) is made.10 In addition, sicknesses which are offered up and are consecrated, as it were, under the sacrament of the sick,11 indulgences received, and martyrdom endured also remove the dregs or tinder of personal sin.

Now, if someone dies without due satisfaction for sin being accomplished which capacitates one for heaven, he or she willingly enters into or accepts this state of purification called by the Church, the fires of purgatory. As the Church puts it in today's Catechism:

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.[. . .] The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: [. . .]

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.12

At the moment of death, everyone becomes poor, chaste and obedient because in the after-this-life experience (the separation of the soul from the body), the next life is of necessity one of utter conscious dependence upon God as one's treasure, not self, without marriage and complete surrender to God's will as the creator of reality which demands that a soul be purified before possessing God in the beatific vision. St. Thomas describing the pains of purgatory says:

With regard to the least pain of Purgatory it surpasses the greatest pain of this life. For the more a thing is desired the more painful is its absence. And since after this life the holy souls desire the Sovereign Good, . . . it follows that they grieve exceedingly for their delay (Supp. Appendix 1, 2,1).

Nevertheless, belonging to the mystical body of Christ, the living can have a great impact upon this other state of existence by doing the very deeds which also lead to personal atonement for one's sins. Again as the modern Catechism teaches:

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore Judas Maccabeus made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin."[. . .] From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.[. . .] The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.). . .13

St. Thomas speculates that those who are in purgatory are more perfect than we insofar as they are not able to sin, but they are less perfect than we insofar as the punishment which they are suffering is concerned.14 In this latter respect, they are not in a state of prayer for us, but rather in a state which requires us to pray for them. But nothing stops them from praising, thanking, adoring, petitioning and the like but Thomas does not develop this notion of their prayer life.

Since the Church from the beginning has always taught that it is good and helpful to pray for our deceased loved ones, it seems that we may do several things for them. First, our prayers and sacrifices may bring unknown consolations to them in the midst of their sufferings but we do not know from divine revelation exactly what happens. Second, our efforts on their behalf may actually release them from their state directly into heaven either because the purification is possibly "hurried along" or perhaps some purifications were dispensed with that bear on something such as restoring the extrinsic glory of God which was unduly taken away by personal sin. Whatever the case may be, the Church teaches the importance of personal prayers for the dead as a sign of unity with them and divine love for them in their needs.

Are the souls in purgatory capable of praying for us?

St. Thomas had taught: "The dead by nature of their case do not know things which take place in this world, especially the interior thoughts of the heart". . . .15 It would not make sense therefore to think that they could "hear" our prayers and supplicate for us. Also, since they can no longer merit for us, therefore it would mean that we can pray for them but not the reverse.

By the time of the Jesuit theologians Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) and St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), it became popular among the laity to request prayers from the souls in purgatory. And by the time of the eighteenth century, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) is teaching that the Church does not officially pray to them because it is not known if they hear us or not but a Catholic can piously believe that "God makes our prayers known to them."16 Thomas in this context had taught that since the blessed see the Word, he can give them ideas about what is going on in the world but those in purgatory do not see the Word "by which they are able to know what we think or say."17 So it follows that "we do not implore their assistance by prayer. . . ." But, using Thomas's other principles, it is not contradictory for God to give infused ideas to souls in purgatory if he chooses just as it is possible for God to permit a soul in purgatory to appear before others on earth to entreat them for prayers and Masses to be said for them.18

Suarez opines that the souls in purgatory are holy and near to God and love us in a general way because they know the dangers we are in and how great then is our need of Divine help and grace.19 St. Robert Bellarmine in his work adds to that idea and maintains that the souls in purgatory have a great love of God and their union with him makes their prayers more powerful since they are superior to us in love of God and intimacy of union with him.20 From Thomas's perspective, even though Aquinas taught that no one can merit for others once dead, his theology of prayer could be applied here in favor of praying to the poor souls without necessarily agreeing with all that Bellarmine asserts:

Nevertheless, God sometimes hears sinners, when, to wit, they ask for something acceptable to God. For God dispenses his goods not only to the righteousness but also to sinners (Matth. V. 45) ..., not indeed on account of their merits, but of his loving kindness.21

So, one could say that the prayers of the souls in purgatory may obtain from God a favorable answer of our prayers to them because of the mercy of God both to them and us. It might also be possible that some souls in purgatory could favorably answer our prayers because of their previous merits here on earth. In any case, while the Magisterium remained silent on this question other than tolerating the practice of the people, the new Catechism clearly teaches:

958 Communion with the dead. "In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and 'because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins' she offers her suffrages for them." Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.

With this last sentence, there can be no mistaking that the Church has approved both the practice of the faithful in this regard and, at least, the conclusions of Suarez and Bellarmine without granting or denying their reasoning. This last sentence of the Catechism does not indicate that any individual soul can necessarily intercede for us, nor does the number in question tell us anything about how the souls would know what to pray for but it does clearly state that they intercede for us and their efforts can succeed. This conclusion leaves theologians free to speculate (and disagree) on the "how" and "what" transpires in purgatory for them to help us.

How poor are the poor souls?

It would seem that in addition to the mysterious sufferings of purgatory, there are its joys as well. First and foremost, no matter what the duration, each soul knows with certitude that he or she is saved. This must be very consoling and give a kind of strength to endure whatever sufferings the soul has to endure. Second, the entire ensemble of gifts which exists in a newly baptized soul exists in purgatory. What this means is that the "poor" souls also possess sanctifying grace, the indwelling of the Holy Trinity, faith, hope, charity, (possibly the infused moral virtues according to Thomists) the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the characters of certain sacraments. Since one can petition God during this period of suffering, though without meriting anything (according to Aquinas), this is a great period for meditation and contemplation still being informed by divine love and possibly infused as well. Therefore, since there are purifying acts of the soul, then the virtue of charity must elicit joy which co-exists with the sorrow for having been negligent in one's relationship to God while on earth. Third, it would seem reasonable to assume that since all the members of the Church in purgatory are united by infused divine love, they will encourage one another in their sufferings. This too can be a source of consolation. Finally, as one sees himself becoming more rectified interiorly, this must produce joy knowing that at some interval one will be ready to hurl oneself into the abyss of the all-loving God. Perhaps that is the greatest suffering which goes on in purgatory which some mystics have experienced here on earth: a overwhelming desire to be "dissolved" in the Triune God and still not yet being worthy to possess Them in such completeness.

If a soul is brought to heaven from purgatory in part because of the prayers and sacrifices made by a member of the Church on earth, then it follows that such a soul will always be in deep gratitude toward and will also watch over that person with his prayers. For this and other reasons, it becomes evident that part of the growth in one's spiritual life on earth must include these persons in purgatory in our prayer life. When one is tempted to give up on prayer in general, one necessarily abandons these souls as well. It seems as if this ability or power to help loved ones after death by sacrifices, prayers, Masses and indulgences, is the Triune God's way, therefore, to keep us from falling away from Them provided we continue to have faith in God's Word on these matters.


1 Constitution on Indulgences as found in Enchiridion of Indulgences, New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1969.

2 ST Supp.71,2.

3 ST 71, 12 ad 1.

4 ST Suppl. 70, 3.

5 DS 2750.

6 See Council of Trent, DS 1820.

7 "Infernos" in the works of St. Thomas and among many other medieval theologians is a generic term for the afterlife of those who do not possess the beatific vision. So, there is the hell of the damned, those in purgatory, and limbo of the just (no longer in existence), and the limbo of the unbaptized children (not explicitly taught by but used by the Church in previous times because a theological opinion). Something of this general teaching of hell as a multi-layer place is found in the Catechism when it states:

633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, "hell"— Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.[. . .] Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into "Abraham's bosom":[. . .] "It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Saviour in Abraham's bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell."[. . .] Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.[. . .]

8 See St. Thomas Aquinas. ST I-II 3, 8.

9 See Council of Vienne, DS 5895. See also St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I 12,5; SCG 3, 53.

10 ST II-II 189, 3 ad 3.

11 St. Thomas was of the opinion that one would go to heaven directly after receiving this sacrament. See ST 102, 5 ad 3; III 65, 1 ad 4.

12 St. Gregory the Great, Dial. 4. 39: PL 77, 396: cf. Mt 12:31.

13 St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in 1 Cor. 41, 5: PG 61, 361; cf. Job 1:5.

14 ST II-II 83, 11 ad 3.

15 ST II-II 83, 4 ad 2 83, 4 ad 2.

16 Great Means of Salvation, chap. I, II, 2.

17 ST II-II 83, 4 ad 2.

18 ST Suppl. 69, 3. This response would explain the reason for ghosts and how to truly "bust" them but is mostly unknown and untried today since so few read Thomas Aquinas.

19 Depaenit., disp. XL vii. s. 2. n. 9.

20 De Purgatorio. lib. II xv.

21 ST Suppl. 71, 3 ad 1.

Reverend Basil Cole, O.P., is an assistant professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. and co-author of Christian Totality: Theology of Consecrated Life (Alba House, 1997). His last article in HPR appeared in July 1998.

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