Purgatory lies at the intersection of those two scriptural teachings: that we need to be completely cleansed of sin before we enter heaven and that we can have sins on our soul when we die that do not damn us, as mortal sins do. Litany for the poor souls in Purgatory can help them very much to ease their punishment; while the souls in Purgatory can do nothing for themselves, their purification “pays for the damages” of their sins. It makes whatever restitution remains for these sins to God.
What is Purgatory?
Purgatory has been described, at times rather poetically, as a “cleansing fire” that burns away the dross of sins on our souls. St. Paul wrote those of being saved “yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15), and whether or not the soul endures a literal fire, its purification does involve suffering.
God has given us the power and privilege to help deliver the holy souls from Purgatory. God’s justice demands expiation of sins, and he places in your hands the means of assisting the holy souls. Pray for the souls in Purgatory to shorten their time of purification. Just as God desires that we pray for the living, even though He could grant them the graces they need without our prayers, so too does He desire that we pray for the deceased, even though they will eventually get to heaven regardless. Somehow, our prayers can hasten that time of spiritual purification and help the deceased enter more quickly into heaven.
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God purification is necessary, for no soul can enter into communion with God without being cleansed; nothing unclean shall enter heaven (see Rev 21:27). In other words, Purgatory is a mercy that God grants us in His divine compassion so that we may enter heaven. We don’t have to wait until the afterlife to start this cleansing, though. Almsgiving, works of mercy, prayers, suffering, and indulgences on earth can reduce the temporal punishment of sin, either for ourselves or others. In addition to those doctrinal facts, we have to turn to the Communion of Saints to fill in the rest of the picture. “Behind the practice stands the Church’s faith in the communion of saints and the capacity for mutual assistance between members of the Mystical Body, whether still on earth or already in the life beyond the grave” (The Catholic Catechism, Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., p. 275).
How to Integrate Prayer for the Holy Souls into your life
If religion did not speak to the deepest sighs and longings of the human heart, then it would be as well not to speak at all. Few are more profound than those offered up for the death of one we love of these sighs. My father, William Hepburn, died earlier this year, and, since by tradition, Catholics devote the month of November in particular to remembering our dead, the forthcoming November becomes a special one for me. It is one of the examples in Catholic life where theological truths and natural human emotions combine in such a way as to produce the inner peace, we all desire and the calm acceptance that what has happened has happened. The beauty of praying for the souls in Purgatory is the accessibility. Many saints have written prayers that anyone can say. When we encounter suffering and have that voice of our grandmother in our head— “Offer it up!”—make a quick prayer to offer that particular suffering for the souls in Purgatory. Take advantage of suffering! We lead busy lives, and keeping up with our obligations to work, and family are often enough to fill our time. And, our prayers usually focus on those things right in front of us. Something more abstract like Purgatory can be more difficult to call to mind than troubles at work or an ailing family member. It’s easier to focus on the souls in Purgatory by moving from an abstract concept to specific memories of our departed relatives and loved ones. Praying with pictures and holy cards can help focus our spiritual efforts. Visiting a cemetery to pray for the dead is also recommended. The liturgical year winds down in November, and the cycles of readings give us scriptures relating to the apocalypse, our judgment, and other things that draw our attention to the world beyond this life.