November is the month during which there is a special focus on praying for the souls in purgatory as November 2nd is All Souls’ Day and so it was natural over time for the whole month to be dedicated to praying for these souls. As we head into November, it’s worthwhile to have a look at what the Church teaches about Purgatory, Praying for the Dead and Indulgences.
Even in Old Testament times, there was an understanding that the dead would have to make amends for their sins (even if they were destined to go to heaven) and that those on earth can help them by prayers
and sacrifices. The clearest example can be found in 2 Maccabees, where a pious Jewish general takes up a collection to have sacrifices offered for the souls of those who had died defending their people. Protestant Bibles omit this book from the Bible but Catholics have retained it and that’s a whole other issue. However, there are several other passages in the New Testament which also support belief in Purgatory.
It’s from Scripture and the practice of the followers of Christ from the earliest times that there developed the understanding that there is a state of purification for the soul after death before entering heaven. It can’t be known for sure what Purgatory is like except that certainly the soul is not yet able to see God and that, in itself, would be a cause of suffering. However, as with anyone who is suffering on earth, we can pray for these souls as their time of suffering is not meant to last forever, and All Souls’ Day and the month of November are significant times to do so.
Indulgences have gotten a bad name since the Protestant Reformation as they were a major controversy within it. However, when Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses against the manner in which indulgences were being distributed in Germany, he stated that, if indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, Luther himself wouldn’t have had any problem. While the 95 Theses did lead to a series of events that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther’s initial problem was not indulgences in themselves; it was that they were being sold which the Pope and the Catholic Church never officially sanctioned.
Indulgences have continued to be a part of the Catholic Church’s teaching and practice despite the controversy around them at the time of the Protestant Reformation (Pope Francis has issued indulgences for the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy). Indulgences reduce or remove the penalty that a soul still needs to make amends for any sin that has already been absolved. Even if the sin has been forgiven, justice still requires that one needs to make up somehow any damage that has been done. However, the Church (from Scripture and practice from the earliest times) has understood that it has received authority from Christ to be able to reduce and remove those penalties and that is done through the granting of indulgences.
Praying for the dead is still practiced by the Jews today in particular through special prayers when one is mourning the death of a loved one. Christians from the earliest of times also continued the practice of praying for the dead and evidence of this can be seen in inscriptions in catacombs which date to these early centuries. From there developed the practice of offering up Masses for souls in purgatory as well as specific prayers and times of the year when there is a special focus on praying for them (November and All Souls’ Day).
Apart from offering prayers and Masses for the souls in purgatory, indulgences are a significant way the souls in purgatory can be helped. There’s only a few things that need to be done: Reconciliation, Holy Communion, prayers for the Pope (an Our Father and a Hail Mary) and a practice to which an indulgence is attached. Practices to which an indulgence is attached include Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (30 minutes), the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross. Reconciliation and Holy Communion don’t have to be done on the same day but at least within 20 days before or after.
“It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead” 2Maccabees 12:46
As we head into another November, it’s a great time to remember to pray for the souls of those who have gone before us – those who’ve been close to us and those unknown to us. Praying for the souls in Purgatory in general also benefits us who are still here on earth because, when these souls reach heaven, they can pray for us. Also, this kind of practice serves as a reminder to us that we ourselves are not in this life forever and are destined for heaven and so, in turn, this should spur us to continue to work towards our own salvation in faith by serving God and our neighbour.