Purgatory & Praying for the Dead

Catholics are called upon to pray for the dead as a continuation of the love we showed to them while they were living.  Praying for the dead is one of the traditional ‘spiritual works of mercy’.  We are to pray for our family and friends but we are also to pray for our ‘neighbour’, including those souls we do not know but are in need of prayers to help them.


What happens when we die?

As the diagram above indicates, when we die there are three possibilities:


            Heaven; or 

            Purgatory as a preparation for Heaven.


Why do we need ‘Purgatory’?

If Heaven is a place of perfection, as Scripture promises that it is (e.g. Rev 21:1, 27), then it is simple common sense to note that most people will need some process of purification to get them ready for heaven.  Some of the purifying we can do while on earth, but if we die still imperfect then there must be a place that purifies us to get us ready for Heaven: this place is called ‘Purgatory’ because it ‘purges’ us of the residue of our sins.

The doctrine of Purgatory thus sustains two important truths:

  • (1) Heaven is a place of perfection, i.e. it is much more than just a continuation of this present life;

  • (2) Salvation is possible for more than just the few souls who die while they are already in a state of perfection.


Why is purgatory a place of suffering?

Purgatory is a place of change and change is painful.  Changing your body by exercise or diet is painful; purifying your soul is a deeper change and therefore even more so.  The classical image to describe this is fire,[2] with both St Peter and St Paul referring to our works being tested or purified, as gold is purified in fire (1 Pet 1:7; 1 Cor 3:15).  The new Catechism, describing Purgatory, thus quotes St Gregory the Great as saying that “for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgement, there is a purifying fire”(Catechism 1031).  Many of the saints have seen visions of this, the earliest recorded being to St Perpetua, who was shown a vision of her brother in this place of "gloominess", "thirst", and "pain",[3] and yet she was also shown how her prayers brought comfort to him in that refining fire -like water in a desert.  Another analogy sometimes used is of a waiting room, or of a prison where time must be served for the temporal punishment due for our sins.

Are the souls in Purgatory joyful?

Yes.  Even though they suffer, we can note that the souls in Purgatory rejoice in the certitude that they will be going to heaven.  These souls want to be purified because they want to be perfect for Jesus.  Their pain is thus a joyful hope-filled pain.

How long are souls in Purgatory?  

The length of someone’s time in Purgatory depends on two things:

  • (1)   The temporal punishment that his or her sins on earth merited.  In this regard many authors make allusion to the words of Our Lord who says "they will not get out until they have paid the last penny"(Lk 12:59);

  • (2)   The degree that the person had already purified himself of his sins before he died. This is a powerful motive for us to do penance while we are still on earth.

How do the prayers of the living help the dead?

Our prayers for the dead help them in three ways:

  • First, our prayers help them obtain mercy in the judgement. Thus we find St Paul praying for a dead man called Onesiphorus that "the Lord will grant him mercy"(2 Tim 1:18).

  • Second, our prayers obtain comfort and consolation for them in the midst of their purgation.  An example of this was quoted earlier in the vision St Perpetua was given of the effect of her prayers for her deceased brother.

  • Thirdly, our prayers help shorten the time our loved ones spend in Purgatory by paying part of the debt of the sins.  The 2nd book of Maccabees alludes to this when it describes how sacrifices were offered in the Temple for the dead "that they might be released from their sins"(2 Macc 12:42-45). 

Which prayers can we offer?

We can pray for the dead using the same prayers we say for people while they are living: an Our Father, a Hail Mary, a Rosary etc.  One particularly important prayer is the Mass, and having a Mass Intention offered for someone who has died in an important way of expressing our love for them.  In addition, we can also offer works of self-denial and penance, going without something like a snack or a glass of wine as a sacrifice to offer to God.  Finally, the practice of offering indulgences for the dead, as describes on the following pages, is a form of prayer that is targeted directly for the remission of sins in Purgatory.

Perhaps the most important thing is that our prayers for the dead should be regular and on-going, many small prayers, but continuing them.  "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."(Catechism 1032)


 You can download a Word file of the above here

 Fr Dylan James, West Moors, Nov 2016



[1] Steve Ray, “Purgatory?” http://www.catholic-convert.com/blog/2014/05/11/whats-the-deal-with-purgatory/ accessed 12/11/2014

[2] “St Augustine speaks of the pain which purgatorial fire causes as more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life (P.L., col. 397). St Gregory the Great speaks of those who after this life "will expiate their faults by purgatorial flames," and he adds "that the pain be more intolerable than any one can suffer in this life" (Ps. 3 poenit., n. 1). Following in the footsteps of St Gregory, St Thomas teaches (IV, dist. xxi, q. i, a.1) that besides the separation of the soul from the sight of God, there is the other punishment from fire, and St Bonaventure not only agrees with St Thomas but adds (IV, dist. xx, p.1, a.1, q. ii) that this punishment by fire is more severe than any punishment which comes to men in this life ".” (‘Purgatory’ , Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm accessed 12/11/2014)

[3] The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity 2:3–4 [A.D. 202]