All Souls Day – Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead

Editor’s Note: Reflection on the Mass readings for November 2nd – All Souls Day Mass Readings

Photography © by Andy Coan

I’ll never forget that bleak January day when my father died. It was very hard to believe in the resurrection as I watched the undertakers carry his lifeless corpse away in a body bag.

But imagine this scene. You are an unborn child who has lived in cozy but cramped quarters with your twin for nine months. But now you both are experiencing tremendous pressure, and your twin is squeezed through a narrow opening leaving you alone in the darkness.

Now think of it from the point of view of little one who just was squeezed through the bottleneck of the womb. He has to learn to breath the air of this new world. His eyes now must adjust to blinding light and his skin to much cooler temperatures.

But what if he was born premature? What if his body was not ready for this new, challenging environment? What if he emerged from the womb with a dangerous infection? Would he not have to stay in an incubator in the hospital for a while until he was infection-free and strong enough to endure the challenges of life on planet earth?

On the first two days of November, as daylight shrinks in the Northern Hemisphere and frost turns vegetation brown, the Church leads us to confront the mystery of death.

These days remind us that love is stronger than death, that Christ’s death for us means that our beloved deceased who believed in Christ are very much alive. They may be among those whose lungs breathe the exhilarating air of heaven and whose eyes gaze upon the glory of God. In this case, they help us through their prayers.

Yet they may also be among those whose lungs were not ready for breathing and whose eyes were not ready for the brilliance of the beatific vision, whose body carried an infection that needed to be eliminated. In which case, we must help them through our prayers. Our loving intercession can hasten the purification and preparation necessary for the full enjoyment of their inheritance.

The Catholic Church has always been very reserved in its teaching about the mystery of life after death, including the mystery of purgatory. Here’s what we know. Christ’s death and resurrection won eternal life for everyone. Yet the fruit of his redeeming work needs to be personally appropriated. Each person must say yes to Christ, and yield to the liberating power of his grace which progressively breaks the sin’s power and heals sin’s wounds. Everyone is obliged to actively participate in this process and to renounce all sin, great or small. God, through his church, provides all the means of grace necessary to facilitate this purification and healing.

Yet what about people who say a fundamental yes to Christ, but drag their feet, clinging to some “small” sins, nursing some attachments to the evil that they’ve supposedly renounced? Purgatory is the process after death where these attachments, the umbilical cord which binds people to the old world, are cut so that people can be free to enter into the life to come. It is the hospital where the infection of sin is eliminated. It is the incubator where heart, lungs, and vision is made ready for a much larger life.

Purgatory is not a temporary hell. The Church does not teach that there is physical fire there (how could fire hurt spirits, anyway?) or that people spend a certain number of years or months there (after death, how do we measure time?) or that everyone but the greatest saints must go there after death (all the means are provided for it to happen here!).

We can’t know for sure where our beloved deceased are, unless they happen to be canonized saints. So when in doubt, we pray for them. If they happen to need our help, our act of kindness can have great impact on them. If not, this kind act still has great impact on us, exercising our love muscles so that we will be ready to enter directly into the wedding feast of the Lamb when our own time inevitably comes.


Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118. This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reproduced here by permission of the author.


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About the Author

Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For his resources on parenting and family life or information on his pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 1.800.803.0118.

Raised in Italian/Irish neighborhood in Providence, RI, Marcellino D’Ambrosio never thought about being anything else but Catholic. But like other Catholic teens, his faith was the last place he looked for fulfillment. Following in the footsteps of his parents, both professional performers in their single years, Marcellino set his sights on stardom, playing bass guitar in several popular rock bands by the time he was 16. At that time he encountered a group of Catholics whose Christian life was an exciting adventure, an adventure worth living for. So he laid his bass guitar aside and embarked on a road that led to a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Catholic University of America. His doctoral dissertation, written under the direction of the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles, focused on one of the theological lights of the Second Vatican Council, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and his recovery of biblical interpretation of the early Church fathers.

His writing has been published in the international journal Communio, Abingdon’s Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, the Tablet, Catholic Digest, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic News Service’s syndicated column "Faith Alive." His popular book, Exploring the Catholic Church and video course by the same name (known as Touching Jesus through the Church in the USA) have been used in hundreds of parishes all throughout the English speaking world. The Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about the Passion of the Christ, of which he is co-author and co-editor, may prove to be the fastest-selling Catholic book of all time with over a million copies sold in less than three months.

Dr. D’Ambrosio, the father of five and a business owner, brings to his teaching a practical, down-to-earth perspective that makes his words easy to understand and put into practice. Audio and video recordings of his popular teaching are internationally distributed. He often appears on the international Eternal Word Television Network is regularly heard on the nationally syndicated radio show "Catholic Answers Live." Dr. D'Ambrosio has been a guest on Geraldo Rivera, At Large on FoxNews Channel, the Bill O'Reilly radio show and Radio America's news program Dateline: Washington.

In 2001 Dr. D’Ambrosio left his position at the University of Dallas to develop the work of Crossroads Productions, the apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization that he co-founded twenty years ago, and to more directly oversee the growth of Wellness Opportunities Group a company dedicated to helping people improve the quality of their lives physically, mentally, and financially. He, his wife Susan, and their five children, reside just outside of San Antonio, TX.

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