Understanding the Catholic Doctrine About the After Life Realm: The Importance of Prayer For the Souls in Purgatory
For us Catholics, we are taught that the Church comprises three segments:
a) The Church Militant, consisting of those who are still on Earth, striving to live in accordance with God’s teachings.
b) The Church Suffering, encompassing those undergoing purification in purgatory.
c) The Church Triumphant, which includes those already in heaven, dwelling in the Kingdom of God.
It’s important to note that here, “church” refers not to physical structures but to the community of believers and followers of God. As can be gleaned above, we see no problem anymore for those who belong to the Church Triumphant as these are the souls of the departed who have followed the path of God while still on Earth, thus have been raised up to heaven to be with God forever. Hence, the focus of this blog on the Church Militant, representing the living believers and the Church Suffering, composed of souls in purgatory. (While some individuals may have reservations or disagreements concerning this belief, Catholics adhere to the concept of heaven, hell, and an intermediate state after life referred to as “purgatory.”)
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, purgatory is defined as a place of purification, a necessary step to attain the holiness required for entry into the joy of heaven. In this context, purgatory serves as a temporary abode for departed individuals who, having sought and received God’s mercy and forgiveness before their passing, still need further purification before they can enter the gates of Heaven.
It’s important to note that even if a deceased person has been forgiven for a significant sin, their soul might not immediately qualify for entry into heaven. These souls must undergo a process of purification, often symbolized as “purging fires” in theological terms, where they must pay the spiritual price for their earthly wrongdoings. This process is akin to serving time in a prison cell, and these souls will only be released once they have genuinely atoned for their sins, often with assistance from the living. Based on accounts, the concept of Purgatory is rooted in the idea of God’s justice and mercy, where even those who die in God’s grace but are not yet fully purified can ultimately attain salvation.
Consequently, the departed souls need to be cleansed and purified from their sins before they can ascend to heaven, reflecting the belief that they must undergo a transformative process before attaining the ultimate state of holiness.
The souls in purgatory are at times called “holy souls in purgatory” because the suffering in purgatory is temporary. All these souls will ultimately have the opportunity to unite with God in heaven forever. The extent of their assistance and the depth of their remorse for their sins determine how swiftly they progress toward this divine union. As such, they implore for our assistance primarily to reduce the duration of their stay in this transitional state and alleviate their suffering. Souls in purgatory lack the means to rectify their past wrongdoings as they are no longer among the living. Consequently, they depend heavily on us for help. In comparison to the souls in Hell, who endure eternal damnation without hope of salvation, those in purgatory are in a considerably more favorable position.
Thus, while we are still on Earth, it’s crucial for us to endeavor to avoid purgatory or, worse, hell. As baptized Catholic Christians and if we follow God’s rules (e.g., as shown in the Beatitudes, etc.) by default, we go to Heaven. Unfortunately, in our spiritual journey, we choose to take a different path. It’s been emphasized that the more grave sins we commit, the longer the period of expiation and the more severe the suffering in purgatory. Fortunately, we, who belong to the Church Militant are granted second chances to mend ways, seek forgiveness, and become devoted followers of Christ.
For those who have departed but are still in the state of purgatory, St. Robert Bellarmine, a Doctor of the Church, taught that the Church Suffering is much closer to God than the Church Militant. In purgatory, despite the soul’s suffering, there is a profound sense of joy and assurance that they will ultimately be united with God. The souls in purgatory, as they expiate their sins, are destined to join God in heaven once they have completed the purification process and received God’s forgiveness. Therefore, they can be rightly seen as potential ‘Saints-in-Waiting,’ closer to sanctity than most of us on Earth.
There are some saints and religious figures in Catholic tradition who have reported visions or experiences related to the concept of Purgatory. These experiences are considered part of their personal spiritual journeys and beliefs. St. Nicholas of Tolentine (considered as the Patron Saint of the Holy Souls in Purgatory) and St. Padre Pio de Pietrelcina are indeed some of the figures known for their visions/encounters related to Purgatory.
So, how can we Catholics (as members of the Church militant) expedite the release of souls in purgatory from their temporary suffering/alleviate their suffering? As mentioned earlier, deceased souls can no longer pray for themselves, so they rely on our intercession, especially from those still living in God’s presence. According to Church teachings, we are called to pray for the departed souls and are being purified for entrance into Heaven, particularly those souls who are most in need of prayers but are abandoned -don’t have anyone to pray for them. Here are some straightforward ways to assist our departed brothers and sisters who have gone before us, by undertaking the following tasks, which are remarkably simple and doesn’t demand much of our time or resources – just a minute or so each day, if possible, and it won’t cost us a hundred bucks(!):
(a) Offer a brief mental or vocal prayer, perhaps with a lighted candle, for a specific soul or all souls in purgatory.
(b) Dedicate a Holy Mass for the intention of a particular deceased person or all the souls in purgatory.
(c) Recite the Holy Rosary, invoking the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
(d) Engage in acts of corporal mercy, such as providing water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, giving alms to the poor, comforting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and similar acts of kindness.
(e) Perform other small, virtuous deeds for our neighbors or ourselves, including making minor sacrifices or practicing “mortification,” which we can silently offer in our hearts.
It’s worth noting that the assistance extended to the holy souls in purgatory is believed to return to us threefold. Certain good works can even grant plenary indulgences, subject to specific conditions like attending Mass, participating in confession, and receiving Holy Communion. Similarly, once the souls in purgatory reach heaven, they may also come to our aid when we seek their help in the future, returning the favor we once extended to them.
Let’s recite one Our Father (The Lord’s Prayer), one Hail Mary and one Eternal Rest… for the souls of our departed loved ones and friends, including the souls in purgatory especially those in need of prayers but have no one to pray for them. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.