November is the month dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. And the month opens with the Feast of All Saints, where we celebrated the Church Triumphant, when all the elect (i.e. in Heaven) bestow their graces upon us.
From this initial Feast – a glorious window into heaven – we, the Church Militant (i.e. on earth) gather much needed strength and fortitude. For in this month, we increase our prayers and sacrifices for the Church Suffering (i.e. in purgatory) – those who will join their heavenly family elect, but who still need prayer.
Thus, throughout the month, we offer our prayers specifically to these suffering souls, many of whom have nobody to pray for them at all.
And our prayers increase immediately, as the Liturgy brings us, on the following day, to the Feast of All Souls – commemorating all the Faithful Departed.
Starting with these two feasts and our intensified prayers for the holy souls throughout November, we find perhaps the greatest visible expression of the connexion between the Church Triumphant, the Church Suffering and the Church Militant.
This is beautifully expressed in the St. Andrew’s Missal:
The Feast of All Saints is intimately connected with the remembrance of the Holy souls who, detained in purgatory to expiate their venial sins or to pay the temporal pains due to sin, are none the less confirmed in grace and will one day enter heaven. Therefore after having joyfully celebrated the glory of the saints who are the Church triumphant in heaven, the Church on earth extends her maternal solicitude to the place of unspeakable torment, the abode of souls who equally belong to her …
Nowhere in the Liturgy is more vividly affirmed the mysterious unity which exists between the Church triumphant, the Church Militant and the Church Suffering, and never is better fulfilled the double duty of charity and justice incumbent on every Christian by virtue of his membership of the Mystical body of Christ.
It is through the very consoling dogma of the Communion of Saints that the merits and suffrages of the saints may benefit others. Whereby … the Church can join her prayers here on earth to those of the Church in heaven and supply what is wanting in the souls in purgatory.
The most efficacious of all prayers is, of course, the Holy Mass. And on All Souls day, Holy Church offers three Masses (that is, at least, in the traditional calendar). And the priest wears black vestments, as with all traditional requiem Masses. For it is a time of mourning.
In this time of mourning, we begin praying for these souls who will one day enjoy the heavenly banquet – but who are not yet there, as their venial sins still require temporal purification.
Hence the importance of our prayers for them, which include the indulgences obtained in the first week of November, almsgiving and sacrifices.
Here in Ireland, at the end of October, I was moved as I witnessed people clean and prepare their loved one’s graves in our village cemetery.
In many parishes, there were extra confession times, so that the faithful could obtain the customary indulgences for the Holy Souls, granted under the usual conditions, at the beginning of November.
And whilst faithful Catholics pray for their own dead – family members and friends – it is very important to also remember all holy souls, who, in some way experience the purificatory fire of purgatory. And especially those with no-one to pray for them.
Just imagine it: You have died and are suffering that terrible longing to be with the Lord, whom you can sense and perhaps even feel. Yet, you must spend this time separated from Him. You are unable to alter the situation yourself, for, according to tradition, it is impossible to pray for oneself in purgatory. There, in this terrible suffering, there is no-one to pray for you, for your family have lost the faith and no longer pray. Would you not long for someone to remember you, someone to pray for you and relieve your suffering, at least a little?
It is therefore so important to particularly pray for those Holy Souls most forgotten.
There are many ways to pray for the Holy Souls.
When my family and I lived in Liverpool, I had a deep sense I needed to pray for the Holy Souls in that city.
Here was a place largely built by the Irish in the Nineteenth century, filled with enormous Catholic churches. Whilst many had closed down, those remaining were still brimming with the faith, at least in comparison to much of England. Yet, of course, like everywhere, the faith was dwindling.
It seemed as though these suffering souls in Liverpool called out for prayers. For, as the faith had greatly dwindled, they were all but forgotten.
So, I began to pray the De Profundis each night for the Holy Souls.
I also began praying the Holy Rosary for them each day. And whenever I prayed the mystery of the Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord on the Cross, I would stretch out my arms in the shape of a cross, offering this small act for the Holy Souls.
And since moving to this Irish village, where we live opposite the chapel and cemetery (we live, in fact, in the ‘dead centre’, as a neighbour likes to say) I have felt moved to pray for the holy souls in the cemetery each morning.
These practices, I still offer and more fervently and regularly in this month of November.
Many saints and pious folk have been visited by the Holy Souls, asking them for prayers and sacrifices, to appease their suffering – a suffering that is often associated with fire. (It must be noted that this purgatory fire is of a purificatory nature, altogether different from the all-consuming, tormenting fire of hell.)
St. Margaret Mary Alacoque is one such saint. She was visited by a deceased Benedictine monk and priest, who had once heard her confession. He was allowed to come to St. Margaret Mary, because he had advised her to receive Holy Communion, which was greatly pleasing to God. As a return of sorts, he came, asking her to suffer for him, that he might be relieved of his temporal pains.
In the Autobiography of St. Margaret Mary, she writes of this:
On one occasion when I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament on the Feast of Corpus Christi, a person suddenly appeared before me all enveloped in flames, the heat of which penetrated me so powerfully that I believed myself to be burning as well. The pitiable condition in which I beheld him caused me to shed an abundance of tears …
He asked me to apply to his soul all that I should do and suffer for three months, which I promised with consent of my superiors. He then went on the say that the cause of his suffering was his preferring his own interests to the glory of God, through great attachment to his own reputation; secondly, a want of charity towards his brethren; and finally too natural an affection for creatures, many proofs of which he had manifested in his spiritual dealings with them, thereby greatly displeasing God.
But it would be difficult for me to express what I had to suffer during those three months. For he never left me, and on the side on which he stood, I seemed to be all on fire; this caused me such intense suffering that my tears and groans were continual.
Having endured terrible sufferings, St. Margaret Mary then records:
At the end of three months, he appeared to me in a very different state; he was bathed in joy and glory, and about to be admitted into eternal bliss. He thanked me and promised to be my protector before God. I had fallen ill at the time, but as my suffering ceased with his, I soon recovered.
It is interesting to note that having pleased God, the Holy Soul here was granted the grace to appear and ask favour of the saint. That favour was of a very specific nature – to apply to his soul, her works and sufferings for three months. Then, at the end of the three months endured by St. Margaret Mary, her suffering ceases – along with his.
This speaks of the temporal nature of the suffering the holy souls endure. They remain in some way connected by their venial sins to their earthly life. And our prayers and sacrifices therefore not only relieve their suffering, but indeed can release them from it entirely.
This is exactly what happened between St. Margaret Mary and the Benedictine. An exchange has occurred. The Benedictine soul is now glorious and ready to enter into heaven. Having been released through her good works, he now offers St. Margaret Mary his protection.
This encounter, between these two souls, beautifully illustrates the relationship between the Church Suffering, Militant and Triumphant.
A beautiful passage inviting us to prayerful practices for the holy souls and further explaining much of the above, is found in the 1962 Roman Catholic Daily Missal (published by Angelus Press). It states:
The practice of recommending to God the souls in purgatory that we may mitigate the great pains which they suffer, and that He may soon bring them to His glory, is most pleasing to God and most profitable to us. For those blessed souls are His eternal spouses, and they are most grateful to those who obtain their deliverance from prison, or even a mitigation of their torments. Hence, when they shall enter into Heaven, they will certainly not forget those who prayed for them. It is a pious belief that God manifests to them our prayers for them, that they also may pray for us. Let us recommend to Jesus Christ, and to His holy Mother, all the souls in Purgatory.
Finally, I offer another incredibly moving story of the expiation of a soul from purgatory. It is taken from the book, Hungry Souls, by Gerard Van Den Aardweg, which I reviewed last year. Let me simply close, then, with a little extract I wrote earlier concerning Aardweg’s account of:
A young nun in the Nineteenth Century, whose recently-deceased father visited her regularly. He seemed a grumpy, ungrateful soul. He frightened her, causing her to greatly suffer and continued badgering her for more prayers and sufferings on his behalf.
Yet, apparently, the father’s horror of purgatory was so intense, that even though he only had to endure it a short while, his suffering seemed unbearable.
But this was not the only reason he badgered his poor daughter. He did not want her to suffer these flames of purgatory and therefore saw that if she suffered for him now, her own time there would be lessened or removed altogether.
Yet, there is still more. On the day that he was released from purgatory – due to her prayers and sufferings – he appeared to her resplendent and beautiful and told her he would pray for her. His prayers would be far more efficacious, as he was now enjoying the company of the Saints in Heaven.
Van Den Aardweg writes of how the poor sister suffered terribly, so that she was even unable to visit the chapel. And yet:
On Christmas night, she succeeded on attending the Midnight Mass, which grace she attributed to the intercession of her father, from whom she expected to receive the announcement of his deliverance. And so it happened. Between the first and the second elevation of the Sacred Host, he appeared to her in supernatural splendour:
My punishment is ended. I come to thank you and your community for all the prayers said for me. From now on I shall pray for you all.
He then appeared to her again to assure her of his prayers and petitions on her behalf. Van Den Aardweg describes this apparition, where:
He was so resplendent that her eyes could scarcely bear the dazzling light. Her joy and happiness were now supreme. She felt ineffable peace of soul
These acts of prayer and sacrifice, on behalf of the Holy Souls, help us more than we can know. They help our own deliverance, by aiding us to grow in our love of God. They may cause us to suffer now (perhaps in a way that is more graceful) those impediments that will keep us from our heavenly goal, at our own death.