If there is anyone who is interested in releasing souls from Purgatory, it is the Blessed Virgin Mary. When her Son went to “preach to the souls in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) immediately after His Death, Mary waited for Him, not in despair but in hope of the Resurrection. She continues to help souls who are “in prison” anticipating the glories of Heaven, so we turn to her on All Souls Day to intercede for those who are being purified.
We Must Pray
The souls in Purgatory should be a serious concern of ours. In that, we reflect the concern of the universal Church, which prays always for the souls in Purgatory, sometimes calling them the “holy souls” to indicate their state of blessedness even as they undergo purification. Every Mass includes a formal petition of the Church for those “who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith” and who are awaiting their final entry into Paradise.
The Church doesn’t give us much in the way of doctrine about the state of Purgatory other than that it exists and that it has certain biblical precedents. One of those is the Second Book of Maccabees, where Judas Maccabeus and his men take up an “expiatory offering” for their comrades who died in battle. The biblical author comments that “if [Judas] were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (2 Macc 12:44).
A Fascinating Experience
The doctrine of Purgatory echoes the common sense belief that we must pray for those who have died. Sometimes, too, God even allows the souls in Purgatory to ask the living for prayers. This is not a matter of doctrine but seems to be rooted in the common faith experience of the Church. It is consistent with our belief in God’s Mercy, although experiences like these always require careful discernment. Here is one fascinating story.
Several years ago, my nephew attended a boarding school where one of the teachers died of a heart attack during the summer break. My nephew explained that he respected the teacher who had been kind to him in significant ways. One night in his dorm room, while all the other students were asleep, he heard footsteps and sensed the “presence” of someone in the room with him. It was definitely a man, and my nephew was a little frightened because no adults should have been there at that time of night.
He pulled his covers over his head as the presence came closer to the bed and said something to him that only the deceased teacher would have said. No other student heard it or woke up. Then the presence left. And when my nephew uncovered his head, he saw what looked like the deceased teacher walking out of the room. He was deeply affected by the experience and later asked me what it meant.
Sometimes They Ask
I told him that sometimes souls in Purgatory – who have no one to pray for them – are permitted by God to let someone on earth know that they need prayers. This is so that they may finish their purification and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I told my nephew that I would immediately have a Mass offered for the teacher’s soul and would commended the man to the generous love of the Virgin Mary, who cares for all who are undergoing the difficult trial of purification.
My nephew never had another “vision”, and we never received any overt sign about the effects of our prayers, but these were not necessary. Prayer is an act of faith. We knew that the man was now in the hands of Our Lady and that all would work out right for him.
She Undoes the Knots of Life
When we invoke the Virgin Mary as Mary, Undoer of knots, we recognize her implicit power to undo the dysfunctions of this world that are created by human sinfulness and the power of the devil. Purgatory is precisely the place where this process takes place for all sinners, so Our Lady has a very special role there. But, like our own obligation to pray for souls in Purgatory, we often forget to turn to her for help. Thankfully, she doesn’t forget us!
On All Souls Day, as the Church embraces all those who have gone before us, the greatest thing we can do is to attend Mass and commend our deceased loved ones to Mary’s loving care. Our Lady knows all the “knots” of their lives that need to be purified, and she will hear every prayer raised on behalf of those we hope to see again in the world to come, where “every tear will be wiped away” (Rev 21:4).
By Peter Darcy