ROME, 1 APRIL 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: The Church is often called the communion of saints, the militant
Church, the purgative Church and the Church triumphant. We living here
on earth are urged to pray for the souls in purgatory to help them
purify themselves from their sins in order to enjoy the beatific vision.
My question is: Do also the saints in heaven pray for the souls in
purgatory as we ourselves do?
S.B., San Gwann, Malta
A: The question is more theological than liturgical and very speculative
theology at that, but is also very intriguing. The crux of the question
revolves around the way that the saints in heaven can know the realities
that occur on earth and in purgatory.
In general most theologians hold that once a person enters into the
realm of the beatific vision, they do not have universal access to our
thoughts or to earthly reality.
Any knowledge they gain is received directly from God, and God most
certainly makes them aware of requests for their intercession in a way
that we can only imagine but never fully grasp while remaining here
Therefore I believe we can confidently affirm that the saints intercede
for the souls in purgatory in those cases when someone on earth requests
that saint's intercession for a particular soul.
The Church itself invokes the saints in this way, albeit in a universal
manner, during the rite of final commendation at the graveside at the
prayer of the faithful:
"V. Saints of God come to his/her aid! Come to meet him/her angels of
"R. Receive his/her soul and present him/her to God the Most High."
If the Church proposes a prayer to implore that the saints come to the
aid of the dead, then it clearly believes this aid is possible.
From a theological standpoint it is very difficult to be able to affirm
that saints intercede, on their own initiative, so to speak, for the
souls in purgatory without some form of earthly intercession.
It does not mean it does not happen; it is just that we have no way of
It is also possible that in a general way the saint's participation in
the heavenly liturgy continually glorifying God is also of benefit to
the souls in purgatory, but once more we are ignorant of the precise
manner in which this might come about.
As the poet Thomas Grey said: "Where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to
If we were sure that the saints of heaven were independently praying for
the souls in purgatory, perhaps many would defer the act of spiritual
charity of praying for the deceased to the saint's powerful
The blessing of ignorance obliges us to continue exercising this
intercession on our own, in the hope that others will do likewise for us
when we are gone.
* * *
Follow-up: Saints' Prayers
for Souls in Purgatory [4-15-2008]
In the wake of our theological musings on the saints' praying for souls
in purgatory (see April 1), a couple of readers asked for further
One asked: "If a person on earth needs prayers, does he himself need to
request these prayers from a soul in purgatory, or can a soul in
purgatory pray for that person without the request?"
Usually we refer to purgatory as a passive state, and we pray for the
souls in purgatory and usually never think of the souls in purgatory
praying for us (see Catechism, Nos. 1030-1032).
However, while there is little or nothing in Church tradition regarding
this point, I believe that it cannot be totally excluded. If someone
requests the prayers of a deceased person who happens to be in
purgatory, God might well make that person aware of this request.
Thus, in a way that is analogous to the spiritual good we inevitably do
to ourselves whenever we pray for others here on earth, performing the
act of love of praying for others could quite well form part of the
process of purgation for our lack of perfect love during our lives.
It is harder to affirm with any certainty that these souls can do so out
of their own initiative. However, if someone, while still alive,
promises to pray for another after death it is likely that God, who
inspired the original promise, will find a way to allow its fulfillment
even if the person spends some time in purgatory.
A Toronto reader inquired: "Perhaps the pious tradition of patron saints
indicates that the saints can take some initiative in intercession, at
least in their 'patronages.'"
I would say that this could be true only in part because patronages do
not stem from the initiative of the saints but from the initiative of
those, whether individuals, groups or the universal Church, who invoke
In this way a patronage is a kind of stable or permanent request for the
saints' mediation in a particular field or for a specific category. Just
as God makes saints aware of individual requests for their intercession,
he will make them aware of these more general and stable invocations for