Tag Archives: purgatory

The Communion of Saints

Pope Francis called the Communion of Saints one of the most consoling truths of our faith. Indeed it is. In this meditation we use texts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St Bernard, St Therese of Lisieux, St Josemaria, Pope Francis and Kimberly Hahn to pray about this union of the saints in heaven, the souls in purgatory and the faithful on earth, all helping one another on the way to heaven. We consider how:

  • The Communion of Saints is both communion in holy things and communion of holy persons.
  • We should endeavour to grow in holiness and increase our desire to be one day with the saints in heaven.
  • We should pray much for the souls in purgatory.
  • We should pray for those on earth and help them to come close to God so that they too may be one day in heaven.
  • By our good deeds we contribute to the Communion of Saints and by our sins we withdraw from it.

The Last Things

One day God will call each of us through the gateway of death into the next life where, after a particular judgment, we will enter into heaven, either immediately or through the purification of purgatory, or we will go to eternal damnation in hell. Meditating on these realities helps us to focus our lives so that we can be found worthy of heaven when we die. In this meditation we use the Scriptures, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the writings of saints to consider:

  • Death is not the end but the beginning of eternal life
  • In the particular judgment we will see our life as God sees us and we can prepare for it by being sincere here on earth
  • Hell is a reality and we should do everything possible to avoid going there
  • If our soul is not completely pure when we die we will be purified in the fire of God’s love in purgatory
  • We should pray very much for the souls in purgatory
  • Our goal is the supreme, definitive happiness of heaven, where we will see God face to face.

Devotion to the holy souls

Through Purgatory the soul must be completely purified before it can enter heaven.

Purgatory is purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

The Church dedicates the month of November to praying for the holy souls in Purgatory. This is important since many souls in that state have no one to pray for them. In this meditation we consider:

  • Why Purgatory exists
  • The pains experienced by the holy souls, along with the love and joy they experience
  • That Purgatory is a manifestation of God’s holiness, justice and mercy
  • Accounts of souls in Purgatory who have communicated with people on earth
  • How from the earliest days the Church has prayed for the faithful departed
  • The benefits for the holy souls and for ourselves of devotion to the souls in Purgatory

Prayer for the souls in Purgatory

Some 150,000 people die each day and it is likely that most of them go to purgatory, where they are purified before entering heaven. They suffer greatly at the same time as they are very happy, since they are assured of heaven. We can help them by our prayers and good works. In this meditation we use texts from Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and St Thomas More to consider how:

  • the soul must be completely purified before it can enter heaven
  • the souls in purgatory suffer the pain of being deprived of the sight of God and of fire
  • most of the souls in purgatory probably have no one to pray for them
  • we can help them by offering our Masses, prayers, good works and indulgences for them
  • if we have devotion to the holy souls, they will pray for us and perhaps we can avoid going to purgatory ourselves

Save us from the fires of hell


In this meditation we continue our journey through the Last Things,  praying today about hell. Hell is a reality and if we pray about it from time to time we are most unlikely to end up there. But God needs us to help others avoid hell too. In this meditation we use texts from Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the writings of saints like St John Vianney to consider:

  • Christ’s teaching on hell
  • God’s mercy and desire to save all souls
  • That those who go to hell choose it by failing to repent of their serious sins
  • The vision of hell seen by the three children at Fatima
  •  How we can avoid hell and help others to do so

Preparing for the judgment

In the moment of our death we will undergo a particular judgment which will decide whether we go to hell, purgatory or immediately to heaven. The judge will be Jesus himself, the Son of Man and his judgment will be just as well as merciful. In this meditation we consider how:

  • we should not care about how others judge us
  • pride colours our judgment about ourselves
  • in the particular judgment we will be judged on how we made use of the many gifts God has given us
  • we can prepare for the judgment by being very sincere in our prayer, our daily examination of conscience and in spiritual direction

Prayer for the holy souls



In the month of November we pray especially for the souls in purgatory, but we should pray for them always. They are forgotten by many here on earth but we can be their good friends by praying and offering Masses and good works for them. In this meditation we consider:

  • Why some souls go to purgatory
  • How our prayers and suffrages can help them
  • The two principal pains these souls undergo and their great happiness
  • What we can learn from apparitions of two souls in purgatory, one to St Margaret Mary Alacoque and another related in the book Hungry Souls by Gerard van den Aardweg

Is heaven real?

In these times of widespread lack of faith in God, many people wonder whether there is really life after death. I post here two answers to the question from my recent columns in Catholic newspapers. The second one relates the life-changing near-death experiences of Dr Eben Alexander, a U.S. neurosurgeon, and Gloria Polo, a Colombian orthodontist who was struck by lightning and “saw” the reality of life after death.

Is heaven real?
I have a friend who is very sceptical about life after death and would like some sort of proof that heaven is real. He says no one has ever been in heaven and come back to earth to tell us about it. What can I tell him?

When it comes to “proof” we have to be very careful. What we can give is strong arguments for the existence of life after death, but these may or may not convince the other person. It is the same with the existence of God, where in one sense his existence is staring us in the face in his wonderful work of creation, but this may not convince a sceptic or an atheist. The most convincing “proof” for the existence of life after death is arriving there and seeing that it really exists. But then it may be too late!
Coming back to your question, the following considerations may prove helpful. The first is that there are people who have been in heaven and have come to earth to tell us about it. The most important is Jesus Christ himself, who spoke often of life after death, of judgment, heaven and hell. But why should a sceptic believe that Jesus is God who has come to earth? After all, he was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth and he died crucified in Jerusalem.
Well, we have multiple testimonies about Jesus in some very ancient writings, written only some twenty or thirty years after his death. They are, of course, the Gospels. They tell us that Jesus not only claimed to be God but showed it by such remarkable feats as raising three people from the dead, curing a man born blind and prophesying his own death and resurrection, which came to pass.
St Paul too had a vision of heaven (cf. 2 Cor 12:2-4) and came back to tell us about it. He found heaven indescribably beautiful and could only write: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
If the sceptic wants more recent “proof” of heaven from someone who has been there, we can tell him about Our Lady, who died in the first century and has appeared on earth numerous times since then and has brought about miracles that admit of no human explanation. One thinks of the image she left at Guadalupe in Mexico in 1531 imprinted miraculously on a cactus fibre cloak, which has baffled scientists as to its origin and preservation, not to mention some of the details on it. Or Mary’s apparitions in Fatima in 1917, where she told the three children several months beforehand that on October 13 she would work a great miracle. In fact on that day the miracle of the sun was seen by some 70,000 people. If there is no life after death or heaven, how is it that someone who died two thousand years before can appear on earth and bring about such prodigious works?
One can also speak about the numerous miracles approved by the Church, which came about in answer to prayers to deceased people. Every beatification and canonisation , with few exceptions, requires two authenticated miracles and some of these are truly remarkable. If there is no life after death, how is it that prayers to a person who no longer exists can have any effect?
And then there are the numerous testimonies of people who have died, or almost died, who have experienced the judgment and have seen heaven and hell. One of the most remarkable and well-known is that of Gloria Polo, a Colombian dentist who in May, 1995, was struck by lightning, suffered a cardiac arrest and was badly burned inside and out. She saw her lifeless body on a stretcher in the operating room. She had died in mortal sin and was taken by demons to hell to see what she deserved for her sins. Then she saw the terrible suffering of the souls in purgatory and finally her own judgment, in which she was condemned to hell. The sins that condemned her most included aiding and participating in abortion, receiving holy communion in a state of mortal sin, fortune-telling, and speaking evil of priests. She was given a second chance and came back to life on condition that she share her experience with others. She has done this all over the world and on the internet, writing her account in the book Struck by Lightning: Death, Judgment and Conversion.
Yes, there is life after death. There is a judgment, hell, purgatory and heaven and we should do everything possible to prepare ourselves for it. Now, before it is too late.

Near-death experiences
We often read of people who have seemingly died and then come back to life, who relate what they saw before they recovered. Can we take these accounts as credible evidence of life after death?

Near-death experiences are very personal and can be considered something akin to private revelations in the sense that they need not be believed by others, and they should be judged carefully on the merits of each one. Some are clearly more credible than others. Some are clearly not consistent with what the Church teaches on life after death while others present no problems.
Since even canonised saints have had visions of heaven, hell and purgatory, and some have had near-death experiences, we certainly cannot reject them out of hand. One example is that of St Josemaría Escrivá. On 27 April 1954, after suffering from a severe case of diabetes for ten years, he suddenly collapsed and appeared to have died. After ten minutes he regained consciousness and was thereafter completely cured of the diabetes, something which is medically inexplicable. While he lay there he saw his whole life pass by very quickly, as if in a film, and he was able to ask God to forgive his failings.
There are literally thousands of people who have reported similar experiences, and there are dozens of books currently available which record them. Two of the most well-known are those of Dr Eben Alexander and Dr Gloria Polo.
Dr Alexander, a neurosurgeon who has taught at various universities including Harvard Medical School, is the author of the best-selling Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, published in 2012. In it he relates how in 2008, while in an induced coma after suffering meningitis, he was taken into a state where he experienced what we would call heaven and he encountered God. Before that experience he could not reconcile his knowledge of neuroscience with belief in God, heaven or even the soul as something different from the brain. His experience completely transformed him, and today he believes that true health can only be achieved when we acknowledge that God and the soul are real and that death is not the end of our existence but only the passage into a different form of life.
Dr Gloria Polo is a Colombian orthodontist whose life was transformed radically when she was struck by lightning in May 1995 while walking on the campus of the National University of Bogota with her 23-year old cousin, who was killed instantly. She went into cardiac arrest and her body was badly burned, both inside and out. Although she had been attending Sunday Mass, she had not been to confession since she was thirteen, she was using an intrauterine device for contraception, she had had an abortion and had paid for others to have them, and she lived a very materialistic, self-centered and ungodly life. What is more, she had told others that devils do not exist and even that God did not exist.
While her body lay on the operating table, she began to see devils coming after her and she found herself falling down a tunnel into hell, with people young and old screaming in pain and grinding their teeth. She saw that the sins that condemned her most included aiding and participating in abortion, receiving holy communion in a state of mortal sin, fortune-telling, and speaking evil of priests.
In that state, she also saw the great suffering of the souls in purgatory. Then she passed through a beautiful tunnel of light to a place of great joy and peace where she was able to embrace her deceased relatives. She also experienced her own judgment, seeing her whole life played out as in a movie with all her actions, good and bad, and the consequences of them. She understood how God regards sexual immorality, abortion and methods of contraception that cause abortions, as well as how he looked on her materialism, her excessive concern for what she wore and how she looked, and her lack of faith.
She was given a second chance in order to amend her ways and to tell others what she had experienced. She has written her account in the book Struck by Lightning: Death, Judgement and Conversion. While we are not required by the Church to believe accounts such as these, common sense tells us that we would be very foolish to ignore them.

Meditation on the Communion of the Saints

Pope Francis, in his Wednesday audience on 30 October 2013, called the Communion of the Saints one of the most consoling truths of our faith. In this meditation we consider how we are strengthened by the union of all in the Church – the saints in heaven, the suffering in Purgatory and those on earth – and how we have a responsibility to contribute to this marvelous reality.

Thoughts on Purgatory

Over the years I have been asked numerous questions about Purgatory and I have answered some in my columns in the Catholic Weekly. Here are two of them, taken from my books Question Time 1 and Question Time 2.

25. The belief in purgatory

Now that we are in the month traditionally devoted to praying for the souls in purgatory, I would like to ask where we Catholics get our belief in purgatory. Protestants don’t believe in it and it doesn’t seem to be very clear in the Bible.

The Church’s belief in a state or place of purification of the soul after death goes right back to the beginning. Really, it goes back to the Old Testament. In the Second Book of the Maccabees we read how Judas the Maccabee, discovering that his comrades who had been killed in battle were all wearing tokens of the false gods of Jamnia, prayed that their sins might be forgiven. He then took up a collection to be sent to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice offered for them, “that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Mac 12:45). This clearly attests to the belief of the Jews in the second century BC that there was a resurrection of the dead and that persons could be helped to be freed from their sins after death by our sacrifices and prayers. In other words, that there is a purgatory.

While the New Testament is not explicit in teaching about purgatory, various texts allude to it. The book of Revelation, for example, says that “nothing unclean shall enter” the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:27). And St Paul writes that in the judgment everyone’s work will be tested by fire, and if one’s work is burned up, he “will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).

Independently of Scripture, though, the early Christians believed in purgatory from the outset. Writings on tombs and in the catacombs include such inscriptions as: “In your prayers, remember us who have gone before you”, “May you have eternal life in Christ”, “May he rest in peace,” etc. If the early Christians thought everyone went straight to heaven, there would have been no reason to ask for prayers for the deceased.

Towards the end of the second century, Tertullian describes how the Church prayed for the dead and offered the Mass for them on the anniversary of their death (De monogamia, 10). In the middle of the fourth century, St Cyril of Jerusalem, in his description of the Mass, mentions the prayer for all the faithful departed after the Consecration, ascribing to it the power of reconciling the deceased with God (Cat. myst., 5, 9). And we recall St Monica’s request to her son Augustine just before her death: “Lay this body anywhere…This only I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be” (St Augustine, Confessions 9, 10-11).

So widespread was the custom of praying and offering Masses for the faithful departed that St Isidore of Seville could write in the seventh century: “To offer the sacrifice for the repose of the faithful departed is a custom observed all over the world. For this reason we believe that it is a custom taught by the very Apostles” (On ecclesiastical offices, 1).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, summing up the Church’s belief, says: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). It goes on to say: “From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC 1032).

So it is clear that the belief in purgatory has been there since the very beginning of the Church. Even if there were nothing at all in the Bible about it, we would still believe in it as coming from the living Tradition of the Church.

186. Prayer for the souls in Purgatory

How do our prayers help the souls in Purgatory? I always thought that the length of their stay in Purgatory was dependent on the state of their soul when they died and that our prayers cannot shorten that time. Can you please enlighten me?

It is true, as you say, that the length of time a soul must spend in Purgatory, or the extent of their punishment there, is determined by the state of their soul at the moment of death. It is generally taught that the soul needs to purified of three things in order to be able to enter heaven: temporal punishment owing for sin, bad habits and attachments caused by sin, and any lack of sorrow for venial sins.

I should explain what we mean by temporal punishment. Every sin offends God and harms his Mystical Body, the Church. The sinner, in addition to being forgiven by God for the sin through the sacrament of Penance, must do something to make up for the harm caused. This is known as temporal punishment, since it must be undergone in time, either here on earth through such things as good works, acts of penance, prayer and indulgences, or in Purgatory. The fewer sins we commit, the more good works, prayers and penances we do and the more indulgences we gain, the shorter will be our time in Purgatory, if indeed we have to go there at all.

Since at their death each person has a different amount of temporal punishment owing for their sins, a different number of bad habits and attachments and a different degree of lack of sorrow for venial sins, it is only right that each soul will have a different amount of time, or degree of suffering, in Purgatory. But we should never forget that God, in his infinite mercy, demands much less punishment than our sins deserve. If it were not for his mercy, we would never get out of Purgatory!

Also, we should remember that the suffering in Purgatory is a happy suffering. The souls there welcome their suffering because it purifies them for their entry into heaven, of which they are assured. Not for nothing do we call them the “blessed souls” in Purgatory. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of this suffering as coming through the encounter of the soul with the love of Christ. In his encyclical Spe salvi he writes: “This encounter with [Christ], as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves… His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God… The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy” (SS, 47).

Returning to your question, if each soul’s degree of suffering is determined at the moment of death, how can our prayers help them? Again, it is a matter of the mercy of God, expressed through the Communion of Saints. Just as God, in his power and mercy, answers our prayers for others here on earth by shortening their sufferings, curing their diseases more quickly, healing broken relationships, etc., so he can answer our prayers for the souls in Purgatory by shortening their sufferings.

Pope Benedict explains it like this: “If ‘Purgatory’ is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another; through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone… So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other – my prayer for him – can play a small part in his purification” (SS, 48).

Indeed, over the centuries there have been numerous accounts of souls in Purgatory appearing to people on earth, some of them later canonised as saints, and asking for their prayers. Often the souls relate how the prayers of those on earth helped them and prepared them for heaven.

In the month of November, which is traditionally dedicated to the souls in Purgatory, we do well to help the holy souls as much as we can: having Masses offered for them, praying for them, offering penances for them and gaining indulgences for them. But we should not limit these prayers to the month of November. We can help the souls in Purgatory at any time.