Souls in Purgatory

St. Thomas speculates that those who are in purgatory are more perfect than we insofar as they are not able to sin, but they are less perfect than we insofar as the punishment which they are suffering is concerned.14 In this latter respect, they are not in a state of prayer for us, but rather in a state which requires us to pray for them. But nothing stops them from praising, thanking, adoring, petitioning and the like but Thomas does not develop this notion of their prayer life.

Are the souls in purgatory capable of praying for us? 

St. Thomas had taught: “The dead by nature of their case do not know things which take place in this world, especially the interior thoughts of the heart”. . . .15 It would not make sense therefore to think that they could “hear” our prayers and supplicate for us. Also, since they can no longer merit for us, therefore it would mean that we can pray for them but not the reverse. 

By the time of the Jesuit theologians Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) and St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), it became popular among the laity to request prayers from the souls in purgatory. And by the time of the eighteenth century, St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) is teaching that the Church does not officially pray to them because it is not known if they hear us or not but a Catholic can piously believe that “God makes our prayers known to them.”16 Thomas in this context had taught that since the blessed see the Word, he can give them ideas about what is going on in the world but those in purgatory do not see the Word “by which they are able to know what we think or say.”17 So it follows that “we do not implore their assistance by prayer. . . .” But, using Thomas’s other principles, it is not contradictory for God to give infused ideas to souls in purgatory if he chooses just as it is possible for God to permit a soul in purgatory to appear before others on earth to entreat them for prayers and Masses to be said for them.18

Suarez opines that the souls in purgatory are holy and near to God and love us in a general way because they know the dangers we are in and how great then is our need of Divine help and grace.19St. Robert Bellarmine in his work adds to that idea and maintains that the souls in purgatory have a great love of God and their union with him makes their prayers more powerful since they are superior to us in love of God and intimacy of union with him.20 From Thomas’s perspective, even though Aquinas taught that no one can merit for others once dead, his theology of prayer could be applied here in favor of praying to the poor souls without necessarily agreeing with all that Bellarmine asserts: 

Nevertheless, God sometimes hears sinners, when, to wit, they ask for something acceptable to God. For God dispenses his goods not only to the righteousness but also to sinners (Matth. V. 45) …, not indeed on account of their merits, but of his loving kindness.21

So, one could say that the prayers of the souls in purgatory may obtain from God a favorable answer of our prayers to them because of the mercy of God both to them and us. It might also be possible that some souls in purgatory could favorably answer our prayers because of their previous merits here on earth. In any case, while the Magisterium remained silent on this question other than tolerating the practice of the people, the new Catechism clearly teaches: 

958 Communion with the dead. “In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.” Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective. 

With this last sentence, there can be no mistaking that the Church has approved both the practice of the faithful in this regard and, at least, the conclusions of Suarez and Bellarmine without granting or denying their reasoning. This last sentence of the Catechism does not indicate that any individual soul can necessarily intercede for us, nor does the number in question tell us anything about how the souls would know what to pray for but it does clearly state that they intercede for us and their efforts can succeed. This conclusion leaves theologians free to speculate (and disagree) on the “how” and “what” transpires in purgatory for them to help us. 

How poor are the poor souls? 

It would seem that in addition to the mysterious sufferings of purgatory, there are its joys as well. First and foremost, no matter what the duration, each soul knows with certitude that he or she is saved. This must be very consoling and give a kind of strength to endure whatever sufferings the soul has to endure. Second, the entire ensemble of gifts which exists in a newly baptized soul exists in purgatory. What this means is that the “poor” souls also possess sanctifying grace, the indwelling of the Holy Trinity, faith, hope, charity, (possibly the infused moral virtues according to Thomists) the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the characters of certain sacraments. Since one can petition God during this period of suffering, though without meriting anything (according to Aquinas), this is a great period for meditation and contemplation still being informed by divine love and possibly infused as well. Therefore, since there are purifying acts of the soul, then the virtue of charity must elicit joy which co-exists with the sorrow for having been negligent in one’s relationship to God while on earth. Third, it would seem reasonable to assume that since all the members of the Church in purgatory are united by infused divine love, they will encourage one another in their sufferings. This too can be a source of consolation. Finally, as one sees himself becoming more rectified interiorly, this must produce joy knowing that at some interval one will be ready to hurl oneself into the abyss of the all-loving God. Perhaps that is the greatest suffering which goes on in purgatory which some mystics have experienced here on earth: a overwhelming desire to be “dissolved” in the Triune God and still not yet being worthy to possess Them in such completeness. 

If a soul is brought to heaven from purgatory in part because of the prayers and sacrifices made by a member of the Church on earth, then it follows that such a soul will always be in deep gratitude toward and will also watch over that person with his prayers. For this and other reasons, it becomes evident that part of the growth in one’s spiritual life on earth must include these persons in purgatory in our prayer life. When one is tempted to give up on prayer in general, one necessarily abandons these souls as well. It seems as if this ability or power to help loved ones after death by sacrifices, prayers, Masses and indulgences, is the Triune God’s way, therefore, to keep us from falling away from Them provided we continue to have faith in God’s Word on these matters. 

Let’s not forget The Forgotten Souls in Purgatory.
Pray for them.

This item 1210 digitally provided courtesy of

Image taken from Dominican Friars Foundation.

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