Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Praying For Relatives, Poor Souls, Even Pet Turtles

Published February 23, 2006

I have an addictive personality. When other women take up knitting, they usually spend a few months creating a scarf or shawl.

As for me, once I pick up the needles, I become an automatic knitting machine. When one mitten is done, I go on to the next one, with barely a breath in between.

Not surprisingly, when I was a child and my parents gave me my first pair of rosary beads, I was immediately hooked.

And when they told me my prayers could help move people out of purgatory into heaven, I had found my life’s mission.

At Mass, while others were listening to the priest’s sermon, I was busting my way through the beads.

When others were kneeling quietly in the pews, saying their post-Communion prayers, I was trying to finish just one more decade for my uncle, so I could start a new rosary for my grandparents.

Problem was, I never knew when I should stop saying rosaries for a dearly departed relative. There didn’t seem to be some fail-safe way to determine when a particular person had finally made it into heaven.

I loved the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” because a bell rang on earth when an angel got its wings in heaven. I wondered why there couldn’t be a system like that for purgatory too.

Maybe every time you saw a rainbow, you would know you had succeeded in getting another person on your list into heaven.

I feared that I would stop praying too soon and leave my loved ones in the lurch, so to speak, so I decided to err on the side of caution. Which meant that I never took anyone’s name off the list but just kept adding more.

Then one day Sister mentioned the poor souls in purgatory who had no one to pray for them.

At that moment, I knew my work would never be done, because even if my relatives made it to heaven, I would have to keep praying for all the nameless people who needed me.

There were times when I wished someone had developed a precise system, so folks on earth would know how many rosaries to say for the dearly departed.

It would be great to know that one rosary shaves off, say, 10 or 20 years from someone’s sentence.

Today, I realize it is wrong to turn praying into an accounting system, and I know there is no easy formula, whether we are praying for the living or the dead.

Still, at times I do wonder if perchance I am praying for people who are already in heaven, and I can just see them smiling down at me and thinking, “Oh, there’s that Lorraine, still praying for us!”

As a child, there were many theological questions that perplexed me, but I didn’t feel I could ask the adults about them.

One day, I returned home from fourth grade and discovered that my beloved turtles had vanished from the bowl I had left in the yard.

And there I sat, beneath the palm tree, wondering whether I should add my turtles to my prayer list.

I was certain animals went to heaven because I couldn’t imagine heaven without them and figured God would want them back after their journey on earth.

But would they make a stopover in purgatory or not?

I dearly wanted to do the right thing, so assuming that my turtles were indeed deceased, I put their names on the prayer card I carried in my missal: “Pray for Flat-top and Wormy.”

In college days, I gave up on Catholicism entirely and left my beads and prayer cards at home, along with my tattered stuffed animals and other memorabilia from childhood.

Many years passed, and although I gave up saying the rosary for the faithful departed, I suspect they never stopped praying for me to come back to the fold.

When I returned to the Church in my 40s, I was delighted to reclaim my missal and rosary beads and figured I would have a much more mature approach to saying the rosary.

But I was wrong.

It wasn’t long before I was back at it again, trying to make up for all the years of lost time.

There were prayers for the living: people who were facing chemotherapy, people struggling with marriage problems, others who were grieving.

And, of course, there was still the list of the faithful departed, which seemed to grow longer daily.

If I ever make it to heaven, I suspect it will be due to the prayers of those who have arrived there before me.

And I can just envision a huge group waiting to welcome me: my parents and grandparents, flanked by a crowd of aunts, uncles and friends, and even Flat-top and Wormy.

I am sure there will also be many people I have never met before, the ones that Sister called the “poor souls,” who had relied on the prayers of strangers.

And at that point, surrounded by this happy crowd, surely I will put away the beads and declare my mission completed.

Unless St. Peter hands me a list of people on earth who are in need of prayers. In that case, I can see myself picking up the rosary beads and getting back to work.


Lorraine and her husband, Jef, live in Decatur, and work at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University. More of Jef’s artwork can be seen at Lorraine’s three books are available on her new Web site: