This post is featured on Catholic Stand.
I’ve been in jail more times than I’d like to count, and certainly more times than I intended. I’ve forgotten the names and faces of incarcerated clients, but I remember vividly the feeling of walls on every corner of a cell entombing me, the menacing glint of ankle cuffs, the fwoosh of an airtight door sealing the silent screams in my head, and the stench of urine mixing with un-showered detainees. Every visit, I trembled with anxiety because it jolted me aware of a human being trapped by the consequences of a crime, waiting powerlessly for the wheels of justice to turn, and entrusting their freedom to my mercy. Jail visits made me painfully aware of a Catholic dogma that I once took for granted: purgatory.
I’m hardly the first person to allude to purgatory as prison. St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi referred to her mystical experience as a “visit to all the prisons of Divine Justice.” St. Faustina Kowalksa, who also experienced purgatory, called it “the prison of suffering.” The lawyer St. Alphonsus Liguori, in citing St. Bernardine of Sienna named it “the prison of souls.” And in scripture, Matthew 18:32-34, a parable of Jesus originated the first hint: “and in anger, his lord delivered him up to the jailers till he should pay all his debt.”
What exactly is purgatory?
The Catechism explains purgatory as a state where those who have died in God’s grace and friendship (members of the Church Suffering) expatiate their sins and undergo purification to achieve holiness necessary to join the perfect inhabitants of heaven (members of the Church Triumphant). The saints refer to purgatory as a cleansing fire where the soul’s earthly attachments and are purified, sins atoned for and prisoners are released as reformed Jean Valjeans. Purgatory is at once a manifestation of God’s justice and mercy.
Since we Catholics profess that we belong to the “Communion of saints” in the Creed, we should also be cognizant that our privileged membership of this community (as the Church Militant- still earning our salvation) invites and enables us to help out the Church militant by our prayers and sacrifices.
Why should we assist in delivering the souls of purgatory? Because the Catechism and the Bible encourage us to.
The Council of Trent in 1945, decreed: “The Catholic Church, having taught in the Councils and in this Ecumenical Synod, instructed by the Holy Spirit through the Sacred Scriptures and by the ancient tradition of the Fathers, that there is a Purgatory and that the souls retained there are helped by the prayers of the faithful, but above all by the Sacrifice of the altar.”
2 Macabees 12:45 highlighted: “it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.”
If those are not persuasive reasons, we ought to consider devotion to the souls in purgatory a sound investment. One: being sinners, all of us will likely detour through a pit stop at purgatory before we enter heaven, and from eyewitness account of saints and blesseds, we’ll all want to get out of there as soon as possible so we can enter into the beatific vision. The souls we help relieve and release will be aiding us from their vantage point when we serve time. Secondly, if we foster a devotion to the souls in purgatory among our living family and friends, we pass along the mission of mercy to them, and they will, in turn, remember to pray for our relief and swift liberation when we form part of the Church Suffering.
How can we help the souls in purgatory? We can offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the dead and earn indulgences for our dearly departed. Catechism 1478 states that:
“Through indulgences, the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sins for themselves and also for the souls of Purgatory.”
Indulgences can be partial (part) or plenary (total). Analogously speaking, one is like a parole; the other, a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Indulgences suffered for the dead is an act of charity.
Recently, I finished a novena for the souls in purgatory. The novena consisted of nine days of praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, St. Bridget’s prayer, and the Litany for the Poor Souls before the Blessed Sacrament (at Adoration, before the Tabernacle, or even online Adoration when I couldn’t leave the house) and offering up pregnancy back pains. In exchange, I asked for prayers from the souls, banking on St. Pio’s promise: “It is impossible to know the intense gratitude of souls for those who help them. They respond with an immense desire to return the favors received. They pray for their benefactors with constant and intense fervor.”
Without going into specifics, let’s just say at the end of the nine day period, most of my concerns at the beginning of the novena were resolved, and at the whisper of sunrise one morning, I received a distinct signal grace. (Why, no there was no haunting involved.)
Let your prison ministry reverberate into the afterlife. Pray for the poor souls, and they will volunteer their intercession.
*** For the course on Purgatory 102, read: "Read me or Rue it" by Fr. Paul O Sullivan, "The Book of Indulgences", "Purgatory by Marino Restrepo, and Prayers, "Promises and Devotions for the Souls in Purgatory" by Susan Tassone.