With the start of November, Catholics enter an entire month in which we remember our faithful departed.
From celebrations of the Día de los Muertos in Mexico, the Jour des Mort in France or the Dzień Zaduszny in Poland, cultures around the world have their own unique way of commemorating the feast that English-speaking Catholics call “All Souls’ Day.”
But who are these “poor souls” we pray for, and why do we pray for them?
Who are the “poor souls”?
The souls we remember on All Souls’ Day are the “poor souls in purgatory” — those who have died in a state of grace but require further purification due to lingering effects of sin committed in their lives.
For example, one might still have an “attachment” to past sins, having confessed and feeling remorse for having committed them but still enjoying the memory of that sin. Purgatory erases such attachments. When their purification in purgatory is completed, the poor souls are welcomed into heaven.
What is purgatory like?
Many images and descriptions of purgatory have been suggested by theologians and mystics. Traditionally it is described in imagery of fire, as St. Paul wrote of the Day of Judgment: “If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15 ESV). Fire is known to refine metals, and so it is an apt image for purification.
How do we know there’s a purgatory?
Scripture and tradition — not to mention reason — support purgatory. In the Second Book of Maccabees we find Judas Maccabeus taking up a collection for a sin offering in Jerusalem meant to atone for the sins of some of his soldiers killed in action and who were found to be carrying pagan idols under their tunics. It said of Maccabeus: “Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc. 12:45).
If the dead already have been relegated to heaven or hell, then prayers for the dead are useless. The fact that Scripture supports prayer for the dead reveals that the dead can benefit from our prayers and atone for their sins.
This belief was part of Christian faith from the beginning. The liturgy of the Church has always included prayers for the deceased. There are prayers for the dead on the walls inside the catacombs of Rome. Later, in the fourth century, St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, requested that after her death he remember her soul when offering Mass. Such prayers are only useful if there is a purgatory-like state after death.
The tradition of purgatory was already strong by the late sixth century when Pope Gregory the Great wrote that “there must be a cleansing fire before judgment, because of some minor faults that may remain to be purged away” (Dialogues, 593 A.D).
Can the poor souls also intercede for us?
To be honest, we’re not sure. The liturgy of the Church does not invoke the poor souls. St. Thomas Aquinas didn’t believe they were in any shape to help us with their prayers, while St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Alphonsus Liguori disagreed. Liguori went as far as to say that if we want the poor souls to pray for us, then it’s only fair that we offer our prayers and sacrifices for their intention as well. Perhaps that’s the reasoning behind the popular lyric traditionally assigned to Chopin’s classic Funeral March: “Pray for the dead, and the dead will pray for you.”
We ought to remember the “poor souls” in our prayers on All Souls’ Day and throughout the year, especially our loved ones who have passed from this life. We might help ease their pathway to heaven — and we likely will benefit from such prayers someday too.
Gerald Korson, a veteran Catholic journalist, is a member of the Knights of Columbus in Indiana. He has 11 children and 15 grandchildren.
Originally published in a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members. To access Knightline’s monthly archives, click here. Or, share your story by emailing email@example.com.
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