The souls in Purgatory: the importance of prayer

All Souls Day is celebrated on November 2. For this reason, November has traditionally been the month in which special prayers are said for the souls in Purgatory.

Loreto Rios-November 2, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes

Photo by Veit Hammer on Unsplash

In the month of November we pray especially for the souls in Purgatory. The tradition of praying for the dead dates back to the Old Testament and many saints have received visits from souls asking for prayers to enter Heaven.

"Longing for God", the greatest torment.

St. Faustina Kowalska, the saint who spread devotion to the Divine Mercy, explained her visit to Purgatory as follows: "At that time I asked Jesus: For whom should I still pray? He answered me that the following night He would let me know for whom I should pray.

I saw the Guardian Angel who told me to follow him. In a moment I found myself in a foggy place, full of fire and there was a multitude of suffering souls there. These souls were praying with great fervor, but without efficacy for themselves, only we can help them. The flames that burned them did not touch me. My Guardian Angel did not leave me for a single moment. I asked these souls what was their greatest torment? And they answered unanimously that their greatest torment was their longing for God. I saw the Mother of God visiting the souls in Purgatory. The souls call Mary "The Star of the Sea". She brings them relief. I wanted to talk to them more, but my Guardian Angel signaled me to leave. We came out of that prison of suffering. [I heard an inner voice] that said to me: 'My mercy does not desire it, but justice demands it'. From that moment on I unite myself more closely to the suffering souls" (Diary, 20).

St. Faustina also saw hell, of which she said after describing it: "I would have died (...) if the omnipotence of God had not sustained me. I write it by God's order so that no soul may excuse itself [by saying] that hell does not exist and that no one has been there or knows what it is like. (...) What I have written is a faint shadow of the things I have seen (...) When I came to myself I could not recover from my horror (...). Therefore I pray even more ardently for the conversion of sinners, I unceasingly invoke God's mercy for them" (Diary, 741).

While hell is an irreversible state, the souls in purgatory are saved, and will arrive in the presence of God after a process of purification. This is why we speak of three "Churches": the Church triumphant, which is the Church that is already in the presence of God; the Church purgative, made up of those who are undergoing the purification of Purgatory before going to Heaven; and the Church militant or pilgrim Church, made up of those of us who are still walking on earth.

Therefore, the prayer of the Church militant has a fruit for the purgative, and the living can pray for the souls in Purgatory.

What is Purgatory?

The catechism defines Purgatory as follows: "Those who die in grace and in the friendship of God, but imperfectly purified, although they are sure of their eternal salvation, undergo after their death a purification, in order to obtain the holiness necessary to enter into the joy of heaven" (Catechism, 1030); "The Church calls this final purification of the elect 'purgatory' which is completely distinct from the punishment of the damned. The Church has formulated the doctrine of faith concerning purgatory above all in the Councils of Florence (cf. DS 1304) and Trent (cf. DS 1820; 1580)" (Catechism, 1031).

The catechism goes on to say that "this teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, of which Scripture already speaks [...].... From the earliest times, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered suffrages on their behalf, in particular the Eucharistic sacrifice (cf. DS 856), so that, once purified, they may reach the beatific vision of God.

The Church also recommends alms, indulgences and works of penance in favor of the dead: 'Let us bring them relief and commemorate them. If the sons of Job were purified by the sacrifice of their father (cf. Jb 1:5), why should we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate, then, to help those who have departed and to offer our prayers for them' (St. John Chrysostom, In epistulam I ad Corinthios homilia 41, 5)" (Catechism, 1032).

Purgatory in Church Tradition

Already from the Old Testament there are testimonies of prayers for the dead: "Then he gathered two thousand silver drachmas from among his men and sent them to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice of atonement. He acted with great righteousness and nobility, thinking of the resurrection. If he had not hoped for the resurrection of the fallen, it would have been useless and ridiculous to pray for the dead. But, considering that a magnificent reward was in store for those who had died piously, the idea was pious and holy. Therefore, he commissioned a sacrifice of atonement for the dead, that they might be freed from sin" (2 Macc 12:43-46).

There are references to Purgatory from the first centuries of the Church. Tertullian, born in the second century A.D., speaks in many of his writings of the purification of sins after death and of offering prayers for the deceased.

Saint Perpetua, martyr of the year 203, saw in her cell, while awaiting her execution, her deceased brother, Dinocrates, "suffocated with heat and thirsty, with dirty clothes and pale color". The saint understood that her brother "was in pain. But I was confident that he would be relieved of it, and I did not cease to pray for him every day, until we were transferred to the military prison (...). And I prayed for him, moaning and weeping day and night, so that through my intercession he would be forgiven.

VIII. The day we remained in the stocks, I had the following vision: I saw the place I had seen before, and Dinocrates clean of body, well dressed and refreshed (...). Then I understood that my brother had passed the penalty" (Acts of the MartyrsMartyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicidad and their companions, VII and VIII).

But there are many other examples: Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage, Origen, Lactantius, Ephrem of Syria, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius of Salamis, Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great....

Praying for the deceased: established by the Apostles

St. John Chrysostom (347-407) affirms that the custom of offering a mass for the deceased was established by the apostles themselvesIt was not without reason that it was determined, by laws established by the apostles, that in the celebration of the sacred mysteries, remembrance should be made of those who have passed from this life. They knew, in fact, that in this way the deceased obtain much fruit and gain great benefit" (Homilies on the Letter to the Philippians 3, 4: PG 62, 203).

In the "Acts of Paul and Thecla" (year 160) there is also a reference to a soul in purgatory, when the deceased daughter of a woman appears to her and tells himIn my place you shall have Thecla, the forsaken foreigner, to pray for me so that I may pass over to the place of the righteous".

In addition, inscriptions are also preserved in the catacombs. prayer request for the deceasedThe first Christians gathered at graves on the anniversary of the death of their loved ones to pray for them.


In addition to any prayer or work of mercy performed for the souls in purgatory, one way to intercede for them is the application of the indulgences which the Church grants in connection with certain works of piety. In the apostolic constitution "Indulgentiarum doctrina"Paul VI explains: "By God's mysterious and merciful designs, men are bound together by supernatural bonds, so that the sin of one harms the others, just as the holiness of one benefits the others. In this way, the faithful help one another to achieve the supernatural end. A testimony of this communion is already manifested in Adam, whose sin spread to all men".

Furthermore, Paul VI commented: "The faithful, following in the footsteps of Christ, have always tried to help one another on the way to the heavenly Father by means of prayer, the example of spiritual goods and penitential expiation (...). This is the very ancient dogma of the communion of saints, according to which the life of each of God's children, in Christ and through Christ, is united with a marvelous bond to the life of all other Christian brothers and sisters in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, forming a single mystical person (...).

The Church, aware from the beginning of these truths, initiated various ways to apply to each of the faithful the fruits of Christ's redemption, and for the faithful to strive for the salvation of their brothers (...).

The Apostles themselves exhorted their disciples to pray for the salvation of sinners; a very ancient custom of the Church has preserved this way of doing things, especially when penitents implored the intercession of the whole community, and the dead were helped with suffrages, especially with the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice".

In this document, indulgence is defined as "the remission before God of the temporal punishment for sins, already forgiven as regards the guilt gained by the faithful, suitably prepared, under certain and determined conditions, with the help of the Church, which, as the administrator of redemption, dispenses and applies with full authority the treasure of the merits of Christ and the saints".

Indulgences can be partial or plenary. The indulgence plenary indulgence (which requires performing the act for which the indulgence is granted, together with confession, communion and prayer for the Pope's intentions, in addition to the rejection of all mortal or venial sin) implies the total remission of the penalty due for the sins, while the partial remission eliminates part of the penalty.

On November 2, All Souls' Day, a plenary indulgence can be gained for a deceased person in any church or public oratory. The faithful who devoutly visit the cemetery or pray for the deceased are granted plenary indulgence (applicable only to the souls in purgatory) on each of the days from November 1 to 8, and partial indulgence on the other days of the year.

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