Saints' Prayers for Souls in Purgatory

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Saints' Prayers for Souls in Purgatory


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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 below.

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 the Lord!"
"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 knowing.

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 be wise."

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 intercession.

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 reflections.

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 their patronage.

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 their mediation.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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