By Bishop James Conley
Out of love for God and love for our neighbor – the two greatest Commandments – we have an obligation and a duty to pray for those whom we know and love. When we pray for other people, we express confidence that the Lord will love them as they need, and we commend them to his will. Intercessory prayer – the practice of praying for others – is an obligation for all Christians. The Lord calls us to pray for one another.
Blessed John Henry Newman called our obligation to pray for each other “the prerogative and the privilege of the obedient and holy.”
Our obligation, and our privilege, also extends to those souls in purgatory. We are obliged to pray for them out of love.
Purgatory is, for every soul who experiences it, an expression of the Lord’s mercy.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).
Newman said once that without purgatory, no one but those who die in perfect union with God would have any desire for heaven. “Supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven,” he wrote. “He would not be happy there, so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.”
Purgatory transforms our desires, and our hearts. Purgatory makes us holy, so that union with God is all we desire – so that we are not distracted by our sinful attachments, or fears, or vices.
Purgatory prepares us for a life of eternal happiness with God.
In this life, we can be aided in the transformation of holiness by the help of our families, friends, and the Church. The same is true of our purification in purgatory. As we are purified in holiness after death, we can be aided by the prayers of our families, our friends, and the prayers of Church. The Church prays for those in purgatory as an act of love, asking the Lord to bring the deceased more quickly into the eternal joy of heaven.
We remember our obligation to pray for the souls in purgatory in a particular way during the month of November. Having Masses offered for both the living and the dead is a common Catholic practice. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most powerful prayer we can offer to God. It is a good and noble act of kindness to have Masses offered for our loved ones.
November begins with the feast of All Saints, in which we remember those who enjoy eternal happiness with God. We might remember a particular saint whose life was a witness to us, or a saint whose intercession has been a source of grace. Even without a devotion to a particular saint, all of us know that saints in heaven pray for us, asking the Lord to bless us, and to make us holy.
If we are grateful for the prayers of the saints, we should be reminded of those who need our prayers. We should remember to pray for those who have died in our own families, our ancestors, and for those whom we have known and loved. And we should remember to pray for those who have no one else to pray for them. We might offer up a small sacrifice, in union with Christ on the Cross, asking the Lord that our small offering of love might benefit those suffering in the purification of purgatory. This kind of prayer is the ordinary obligation of believers. And in the month of November, we ought to consider how we can make it a habit.
In Pope St. John Paul II’s private chapel, at the kneeler where he prayed each morning and night, were scraps of paper, from around the world, with the names of those he had promised to pray for. Pope Francis keeps a small notebook at hand, to write down those prayer requests he receives. We might consider doing the same.
During November, we might consider recording the names of those whom we love who have died, and pray for them by name, alone, and with our families. And we might also add to that list the living who have asked us to pray for them, trusting that the Lord will give them what they need. We have been aided by the prayers of the saints, of our parents, and of the Church. As we pray for the souls in purgatory this November, we ought to ask ourselves who we can aid through our prayers.
“Pray for one another, that you may be healed,” the letter of St. James commands us. “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.”
May we become righteous, faithful and holy. And may our prayers help the holy souls in purgatory, and those we know and love, to behold the joy of eternal life with God.