Each of us has probably a very clear image rooted in our consciousness of the nature of heaven and hell. Fed on popular culture, our imagination, can, even at this precise moment, conjure up stereotypical pictures of angels on clouds or cauldrons of sinners boiled in tar. What does purgatory look like, however?
Theological debates on the nature of this state continue to this day. What, then, should we know of the state where it is likely that many of us will reach?
Modern times are characterised by a disturbingly prevalent tendency to look for ways of remaining within our “comfort zone”, constantly expe riencing pleasure and satisfaction. It is certainly a lot easier for us to live our lives forgetful of the existence of hell, culpability, punishment or of a sense of responsibility for our sins. This tendency penetrates even the teaching of the Church. We some times see pastors who attempt to at tract new believers and not to put off existing members of the faith ful, assuming the role of a salesman concerned to maintain customer satisfaction. This is why the subjects of hell and purgatory are frequently neglected, even within the Church. Forgetfulness of the existence of the Evil One is his greatest success.
Many believers do not acknowledge the existence of purgatory…
When Our Lord Jesus took St Faustina to purgatory, he said of this place: “My Mercy does not want this, but justice demands it” (Diary 20). This mystical experience gives us, firstly, proof of the existence of purgatory, acknowledged by the Church and, secondly, a warning against a false idea of the Divine Mercy. Even we, as Catholics, are apt to think that the Divine Mercy has triumphed and that we are therefore already saved. This view is generally formulated to mean that: “In order to be saved, it is sufficient to be a good person”. I am afraid that the truth is much more severe and harder to accept. The degree of holiness to which we are called is of a much higher order.
How should we explain this to the faithful, however? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that those “who die in God’s grace and friendship imperfectly purified, although they are assured of their eternal salvation, undergo a purifi- cation after death, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of God” (CCC 1054). What is the difference between death in a state of grace and complete purification?
Let us begin by saying that it is not God who sends us to purgatory. At their judgement, God reveals to people the state of their souls at the time of their death and the soul voluntarily undergoes the sufferings which cleanse it of the stains of its earthly life.
St Catherine of Genoa had a mystical vision in which she saw souls voluntarily throwing themselves into purgatory…
Equally vivid is the comparison of a soul in purgatory to a wedding guest who light heartedly visits his friend’s house. He pays no attention to his lack of wedding garment until the glare of the approaching bridegroom reveals to him his own impurity and inadequacy. Despite having received an invitation, he will be unable to cross the threshold of the wedding feast (cf. Matt 22: 214).
Desiring greatly to sit at the feast with the bridegroom, the guest will go first to undergo the purification which he had neglected earlier. Purgatory is therefore the state in which we prepare to meet our greatest friend – God.
We should certainly emphasise that the visions of purgatory accord ed the mystics were granted them in particular and should be interpreted in some ways as metaphors.
In this conversation we are trying to present a clearer picture of purgatory than would be covered in a dictionary definition.
When we formed the Michaelite Intercessors for the Holy Souls we were impelled by a belief that it was necessary to raise people’s awareness. In order to feel the urge to pray for the holy souls in purgatory, we first need to understand the nature of pur gatory and the situation in which the souls there find themselves.
What situation are we referring to?
There are narratives told by the holy souls which stress the fact that there is no suffering on earth comparable to that of purgatory. Therefore each of our sufferings while on earth, whether physical or psychological, should be offered up to Jesus.
In His sacrifice on the Cross, He showed us that there is no other road to salvation except through suffering. Each of our earthly sufferings is therefore a blessing, and what we do not atone for on earth we will have to atone for in purgatory, magnified to a greater extent. According to what the holy souls have told us, each level of purgatory differs only from that of hell in that there is a way out. The same is true of the suffer ing caused by distancing ourselves from God and our longing for Him.
How therefore should we help the holy souls to free themselves from this horrifying predicament?
I would like to cite the words of one of our patron saints, St Stanisław Papczyński, who said that a person who is not moved by their fate and does not desire to assist them when he or she is able to do so, is godless. St Padre Pio is also quoted as saying that we should empty purgatory. The souls there are no longer able to help themselves and rely wholly on our help.
Are the faithful generally aware of this, however?
I am under the impression that this awareness was much greater in the past.
Once we become aware of the extent of the suffering and loneliness of souls in purgatory, prayer for them comes naturally to us.
However, once we have said our farewells to our deceased loved ones, the awareness that they are still in need of our help generally fades over time. Our empathy for others tends to be limited to the suffering which we can actually see and witness. We pay undue attention to the needs of the body to the detriment of those of the soul. This disproportion has been particularly apparent in recent months.
I would like to remind all, who think that the souls of their loved ones must surely go to heaven, of the words of Sister Lucy, witness to the apparitions of Fatima. She questioned Our Lady as to the fate of her friend Amelia, who had died. Our Lady is reported to have told Lucy that the soul of her friend (yet a child, after all) was not damned but that she would remain in purgatory until the end of the world. It is therefore possible that many of our loved ones remain in purgatory without assistance for many years. It is as if we had left our parents in a care home and cut off all contact, forgetful of the love they have shown us.
I would wish that as much pub lic attention was focussed on saving souls as on saving our physical bodies. Spiritual health is, after all, of much greater importance than physical health. I like the initiative urging people to have Masses said for the dead, instead of paying for wreaths of flow ers. Floral wreaths serve only to de light our eyes and bring no benefit to the soul of the deceased person. The beautiful old tradition of Gregorian Masses for the dead should also be more widely publicised.
We usually pray for our loved ones on the 1st and 2nd of November (the Feast of All Saints), while we forget that each and every celebration of the Eucharist includes an element of prayer for the souls in purgatory…
Participation in the Eucharist and taking Holy Communion in the in tention of the holy souls is certainly the most important “life belt” we can give them and ourselves. Each Holy Mass is a Living Sacrifice by the Lord Jesus, in which each of us is invited to participate. There are many pictorial representations of the moment of the elevation of the Blood of Christ dur ing Mass, which, flowing down from the chalice in the priest’s hands puts out the flames in which the holy souls find themselves. It would be hard to find a more eloquent representation of the meaning of the Holy Eucharist.
Given your earlier reference to the words of the saints, I would like to ask about their role. Paintings of purgatory frequently portray holy “intercessors” assisting them on their way to heaven. Sometimes it is St Gregory or St Teresa of Avila, but more frequently Our Blessed Mother or St Michael the Archangel. What is their role in bringing souls out of purgatory?
The role of Our Lady is key. From the very beginning she is a link between us and God. In the “Hail Mary” we beseech her to “pray for us, sinners … now and at the hour of our death”. It is very important that we should say these words in full consciousness of their meaning.
The holy souls call Mary the Star of the Sea. This term appeared already in the medieval Marian hymn “Ave Maris Stella”. It includes the symbolism of the cold, damp sea breeze which soothes the burning flames of purgatory. Mary visits purgatory on her feastdays and on each First Saturday, she takes purified souls to heaven.
This is why I appeal to people that we should entrust the souls of our dear departed into the hands of the Mother of God.
It is certainly worth our while to choose saints to whom we have a particular devotion, so that we may also count on their prayerful intercession at the hour of our death.
What of St Michael the Archangel, who is so close to our readers. What is his role?
According to the revelations of holy mystics, St Michael the Archangel is the one who conducts souls from the temporal to the eternal world. He can also defend us in this last struggle with evil. He comes to the aid of souls in purgatory, defending them against the attacks of evil spirits, as they are beset by demons at the lower levels of purgatory, which increases their suffering. It is worth our while to ask St Michael for his protection from them.
Why did you decide, however, that intercessory prayer for the souls in purgatory should be in a group rather than individually?
“For where two or three meet in my name, I am there among them” (Matt 18:20).
Certainly there is a purely human aspect to this in that as a group it is eas ier to speak to parish priests, to organise meetings and, above all, to evangelise, to share our particular charism…
How, in short, would you describe this charism?
I would compare our group to an am bulance crew whose job it is to bring help to souls in purgatory. Medical training is not mandatory for this job, however. What is absolutely neces sary is steadfast faith in Divine Mercy and love for our neighbour, evident in a readiness to undertake various sacrifices for these intentions.
We are certainly necessary for those souls who have nobody left to pray for them at their passing. Priests sometimes fall into this category. We encourage people to take responsibil ity for prayer for those who serve us in our parishes.
Let us return to the idea of a sense of community.
It plays a key role in terms of our moti vation. This year we organized a form of relay with the motto: “100 Masses for the Holy Souls”. Each member and sympathizer would add the Masses they requested to the total until the number reached one hundred. The total would be displayed in the par ish so parishioners could see it and become more aware of the importance of prayers for the holy souls.
Do parishioners frequently approach your group with prayer requests for particular people?
We do not yet formally function as a support group in these terms, al though we are considering having a box in which people can place their intentions.
We do get requests for prayer from people approaching us before Masses or meetings asking us to prayer for their recently deceased loved ones.
What kinds of prayer do you say for the holy souls apart from participation in Holy Mass?
The Holy Rosary and reflection on the Passion in the Stations of the Cross. We have already mentioned the offering of one’s sufferings and therefore experiencing it in a conscious manner. I do not refer only to physical suffer ing but offering up one’s loneliness and the hurts caused us by others. Our forgiveness for those who have hurt us bring down graces not only for ourselves but can also be a wonderful offering for the souls in purgatory!
Our daily troubles can be another such offering at times when we find it hard to find a moment to assist the holy souls in prayer.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1032) commands us to offer alms and works of penance as well as prayers for the dead. Do you also practice this type of service?
At our present stage of formation as a group we are trying to build a greater awareness of the need to pray for the souls of the dead, not only those close to us, but for all souls in purgatory. Each member of the group chooses his or her own way of doing so.
I am sure that fasting is an effec tive means to support the holy souls. Our Lord himself told us this in the Gospel. We should remember that fasting is not necessarily a matter of the body. To fast is to deny oneself some pleasure. An example could be to abstain from the use of social me dia for a week. Some may find this a greater form of abstinence than a day’s fast on bread and water!
We don’t know exactly how many indulgences we can offer for the souls in purgatory. The list of these is more than ten, some of which we may be unaware we fulfil each day. Examples include recitation of the Rosary, whether in church with others or in our families, reading the Bible for half an hour, saying the Chaplet to the Divine Mercy before the Blessed Sacrament, whether exposed or in the tabernacle. It is therefore worth our while asking God, just after we wake, that we wish to offer any con ditions for indulgences, whether consciously or unconsciously, for the holy souls.
It is unfortunate that the subjects of indulgences, fasting and penance are marginalised. They are concerned with suffering and contemporary man seeks pleasure, joy and satisfaction. The human definition of happiness involves the constant experience of pleasure, while the Divine definition involves being in the presence of God.
In terms of this very specific prayerful service can we speak of any evident fruits? If we pray for healing, we are capable of checking if it has occurred or not… If we pray for souls in purgatory the matter is less clear. Is that fact not in itself discouraging?
As Catholics, we should be aware that no prayer goes unheard. Part of our faith in God the Father is also a faith in the fruits of our prayer. If a soul for whom we have been pray ing has already attained heaven, our prayer passes to benefit other souls in purgatory, according to Divine wisdom. This question is one of the most frequent asked of us.
The knowledge that our prayers, sacrifices and sufferings can serve to atone for others and assist them to attain salvation is absolutely extraor dinary and encouraging.
Another form of assistance is the Eucharist, as I mentioned earlier. Daily attendance at Mass and reception of the Blessed Sacrament is a great gift for the souls in purgatory, but also a great gift to my own soul.
A significant and moving fruit of prayer is the certainty that all the souls whom we have helped become our defenders and helpers at our own judgement before the throne of God. Recalling this fact is a tremendous encouragement to pray for the holy souls in purgatory.
Many people are unaware that we can also turn to the souls in purgatory for help, similarly to the way we can turn to our own Guardian Angels. I obviously try not to take unfair ad vantage of their goodness, but their intervention has proved effective even in such minor matters as reaching a garage while driving with a damaged tyre or managing a theoretically im possible approach up a muddy moun tain slope.
Many such testimonies can be found on the internet. We can take them with a pinch of salt, but is it not beautiful that God also hears the prayers of the souls in purgatory? The holy souls transform us. They pray and intercede for us to God. Each person who prays for them also re ceives their support. I feel that much that is good in my life was obtained as a result of their intercession.
Sometimes there are cases in which someone, after dreaming of their dead spouse or other family member, goes to ask for a Mass for them. In one of the parishes in Rome there is even a Museum of the Holy Souls in purgatory, in an attempt to document such occurrences.
Curiosity is a natural human charac teristic, though I would warn against seeking sensationalism. I would warn all the more against attempt ing to make contact with the souls in purgatory, which can end in demonic possession. People are unaware that they thereby enter the spirit world, in which evil spirits may show an interest in us.
Contact with the holy souls in pur gatory is a grace from God, though many of those who end up zealously praying for them may have initially been motivated by a selfish desire. The grace of seeing purgatory and the souls present there more directly, was generally granted to holy mystics. For us, the basic sources of information about purgatory are the Holy Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to which the writings of the saints take second place.
We should always treat all dreams and private revelations with a meas ure of caution. Certainly, God in His wisdom can allow such situations and I also meet with such stories. Let us treat them, however, as souls calling for prayer and pray for them.
How did the idea of the Intercessors of the Holy Souls come about?
It all began with one particular fam ily saved from breakdown thanks to the Novena to Our Lady of Pompeii said by the wife, which freed her from addiction and other problems. As a result of Our Lady’s intervention into their lives, the family made a commitment to the holy souls in purgatory. It began as a prayerful commitment by that particular family and was later shared with other members of their parish.
As far as I am concerned, the key to this in my own life was reading the famous “Manuscript on Purgatory” by Sr Mary of the Cross. The text opened before me the true state of my soul and I stood before my own sinful ness. I had earlier not wanted to think about punishment and hell, thinking that, being baptised, I was automati cally entitled to salvation. Thanks to Sr Mary of the Cross, I realised how many others such as myself remain in purgatory, and, being aware of this fact, I should help them.
The breakthrough in terms of our initiative came with the approval of our parish priest, Fr Kazimierz Joniec CSMA. The idea to form a prayer community met with widespread interest from parishioners. Several dozen people turned up to our first meeting two years ago.
What form do your meetings take? What formation programme do you have?
We try to organise monthly meetings at which Holy Mass is preceded by a talk or lecture. For the first half year, weconcentrated on the topic of the true nature of purgatory, so that we may awaken a need within ourselves to pray for the souls there. In the second half of that year, we invited priests and sisters from religious orders whose charism includes prayer for the holy souls, in which we learnt what the saints, like our patrons St Stanisław Papczyński, St Faustina and St Michael the Archangel, had to say on the subject of purgatory. We are now at a stage of our forma tion where we work on ourselves and offering up our efforts up for the sake of the holy souls.
The number of people involved is between 30 and 100 (the pandemic stopped it for now). Anyone can come and pray with us. They do not have to enrol. What joins us is the need to pray for the souls in purgatory.
What would you say to those readers who feel an inner call to pray for the holy souls?
I would like to invite them to find the information given in Catholic web pages. I would also like to appeal to you not to put off prayer for the holy souls. They wait for our assistance. Please start today!
Karol Wojteczek was speaking to Konrad Zaręba from the Michaelite Intercessors of the Holy Souls in the parish of Our Lady, Queen of Angels, Warsaw, Poland