The holy souls in purgatory

Question

Who are the holy souls and why do we pray for them? — Green Bay 

“In regards to purgatory and praying for the dead, do we know how long a person stays in purgatory? How many Masses should we offer for a deceased person?”— Kaukauna

Answer

“Holy souls” refers to the souls of those who have died and whom we believe are in a state between this life and heaven. Since we cannot know for certain, the church leaves the state of a soul to God’s judgment. If a soul reaches heaven, they are a saint — even if not formally canonized. The church formally recognizes some saints by canonization. Miracles linked to saints, showing they are with God, are part of the canonization process.

Then there is the opposite of heaven: total separation from God. This is hell. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (n. 1035), “The teaching of the church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity.” It is not known how many souls are in hell. God wants no one to go to hell and the church prays that no one does: “Command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those you have chosen” (Eucharistic Prayer I). 

Between heaven and hell, all other souls, after death, enter what church teaching calls “purgatory.” While not necessarily a place or time, purgatory is how a soul undergoes purification, a cleansing. This means that a soul is being perfected so it can move into the presence of God and behold “the beatific vision:” being with God.

Souls in purgatory are assured of heaven. Thus, they are “holy,” or blessed, souls. But since they are still in transit to heaven, they need our prayers. Most especially in need are souls with no one to pray for them. So the church prays for the dead. This is also why we “offer Masses” with the intention of deceased persons.

Nor are prayers a one-way street. Because they are in a state of holiness, souls in purgatory can and do pray for those of us who remain on earth.

In church teaching, the souls in purgatory have been called “the church suffering” — not because they have pain as we know pain, but because they have not yet achieved the joy of heaven. Since they have not gained heaven, they long for it. This longing can be a form of suffering. We on earth — called “the church militant” because we still go about our work, our active service to God — pray for them. The saints in heaven, called “the church triumphant,” also pray for us and the holy souls.

All these shared prayers and good works involve “the communion of saints.” 

A note about time and purgatory: Humans experience time in a linear fashion called “chronological.” God’s “time” is not the same. As Scripture says, for God, a day is like a 1,000 years and a 1,000 years like a day (2 Pet 3:8). When we die, we step out of human time and into God’s time. Likewise, the holy souls in purgatory “exist in time” differently. 

“How long” a soul stays in purgatory is unknown, except to God. However, we can be assured that our prayers for these souls have merit, even if they have “reached heaven.” Through the same “communion of saints,” our prayers are shared by these triumphant saints with other souls in need. That includes souls on earth and souls who remain in purgatory. All this happens through the grace of God and by the merits of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.

Kasten is an associate editor for The Compass and holds a master’s degree in theological studies from St. Norbert College, De Pere.

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