My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We began the month of November with All Saints Day and All Souls Day. We continue to pray for the souls in purgatory throughout the month of November. Catholics who are well-schooled in the teachings of the Catholic Church have no problem understanding the previous two sentences. Non-Catholics as well as Catholics with little or no catechetical training or religious education, however, may be somewhat confused by the terminology.
Why have both an All Saints Day and an All Souls Day? Are we not praying for dead people in either case? Yes, both the saints whom we honor on Nov. 1 and the souls of the faithful departed for whom we pray on Nov. 2 are all dead, but there is a difference. Saints are all those who have died and are now in Heaven. Many saints have been canonized by the pope over the past two thousand years, meaning that he has infallibly declared that they are now in Heaven, usually after two miracles have been ascribed to the intercession of the deceased person after a long and vigorous investigation. Even among those saints who have been officially canonized, not all of them have their own feast day, since there are more canonized saints than there are days in the year, hence a day to honor all of them. But the vast majority of the deceased who are now in Heaven have never been officially canonized, so All Saints Day is a way to honor them, as well.
Notice that we say that we honor the saints on All Saints Day. They do not need our prayers since they are already in Heaven. But we can look to them as role models of the Christian life and learn from their example of heroic and saintly living. We can also pray for their intercession, which simply means that we seek their heavenly influence in obtaining God’s graces for our spiritual benefit.
All Souls Day commemorates the souls in purgatory. According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 210-211), “Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven. Because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.”
In response to those who might doubt the existence of purgatory and whether our prayers can help the souls in purgatory, St. John Chrysostom explains, “If Job’s sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (referring to Job 1:5). Also in the Old Testament, the Second Book of Maccabees (12:38-46) speaks of prayer for those who have fallen in battle. Three New Testament texts are also cited as the basis for the doctrine of purgatory: Matthew 5:26, Matthew 12:32, and 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, since they allow for the possibility that some sins are forgiven in this world and some in the next.
Another word that may need some explanation is “indulgence.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1471), “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.”
At this point, a person may be wondering: If I have gone to confession and the guilt of my sins has already been forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation, how can there still be temporal punishment due to sin? Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 1472-1473) explains, “To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. On the other hand, every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain. The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the ‘old man’ and to put on the ‘new man.’”
May God give us this grace. Amen.