Published November 2, 2006
“Let’s not forget the poor souls in purgatory who have no one to pray for them,” said Sister Rosemond.
I was in seventh grade in Ascension School in Elmhurst, N.Y., sitting quietly among the students on a chilly November day, the second day of the month.
It was called All Souls’ Day.
The thought that someone would have no one to pray for them was more chilling than the weather.
Surely, wouldn’t relatives and friends pray for those who had died in a state of venial sin, and thus were not ready to meet God face to face in heaven?
But as I grew older, I realized the truth: Some people leave behind relatives and friends who neglect to pray for them, perhaps because they forget. Or perhaps because they are no longer believers themselves.
I was one of those relatives. I had become an atheist during my college years, and stopped offering prayers and having Masses celebrated for the dead.
Oddly enough, vigil candles helped bring me back to my childhood faith many years after college.
When my husband, a non-Catholic, told me he had lit candles for his deceased father and my parents, I heard alarm bells ring in my heart.
God was trying to get my attention.
These bells ring every year in my heart as All Souls’ Day approaches, and I go over the list of the faithful departed.
“We should continue to truly love our dear dead,” writes Serge Bolshakoff in “Wisdom for the Journey.”
“When we shall die, they shall remember us at death’s hour with the same love (with) which we commemorate them now.”
Once I returned to Catholicism, I had much catching up to do in the love department.
After all, I had stopped praying for my beloved parents, along with Uncle Johnny, who had died of a heart attack in his 30s, as well as Uncle Savy and Aunt Lily, who died childless.
Many Protestants define the communion of saints as composed of the living members of Christ’s church on earth, but Catholics also include some of the dead.
Some who die go to heaven and become saints, whether they are officially recognized and named by the church or not. And I know some of my deceased loved ones might be among the saints, enjoying the beatific vision, which is seeing God face to face.
If that is true, then they are praying for me. But if they are still in the place of final purification, known as purgatory, then I have an obligation to them.
As St. John Chrysostom said, “Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
We can also have Masses celebrated in their names, give alms and perform works of penance in their behalf.
When we are suffering, whether from old age, illness or injury, we can offer our pain to God and ask Him to use it to help a soul in purgatory.
This is a mystical transformation, in which our suffering can benefit someone else. It is based on God’s ability to take any negative and turn it into good, as He did with the crucifixion.
November 2 marks a special day devoted to all the souls in purgatory, but we also remember them during Masses throughout the year, when the priest reminds us to pray for the dead.
The secular world sees death as the worst thing that can happen to someone. Books decry aging as a horrible and frightening thing, and authors wring their hands over the inevitability of dying.
But for those who have faith in Jesus Christ, death is a transition, not an end. He reminded us that the grain of wheat has to fall to the earth and die before it can bear fruit.
Death is a journey from one type of existence to another. Many make a stopover in purgatory—which comes from the Latin purgare, “to cleanse”—where they repent for venial sins that were not atoned for while they were alive.
And many souls in purgatory are fortunate to have people on earth who are remembering them with Masses and prayers.
But, as Sister Rosemond said so long ago, there are also the poor souls, who have no one to pray for them.
On All Souls’ Day, and throughout the year, we can pray for the souls whose names we don’t know. Forgotten by many, they are still remembered by God.
They are journeying toward their final home and that moment when they will see God face to face.
And then the poor souls surely will do what love would prompt anyone to do. Offer their prayers for all those who helped them on their way.
Lorraine V. Murray also writes for The National Catholic Register and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her latest book is “How Shall We Celebrate? Embracing Jesus in Every Season” (Resurrection Press). You may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Artwork by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com).