Death is not the end of human life. Those who have “died” are actually still alive. They have only gone to another world. The death of the body is the end of a certain stage in life. The body dies, but the immortal soul lives on.
The quality of this other-worldly life depends on the quality of the life on earth: how much goodness there was in it and how much bad, how much Good and Evil. At the moment of death, the time of harvest ensues. Some of those in this post mortal life rejoice in unspeakable happiness; others experience the pain of purgation as a consequence of their sins, and we on earth can provide them with help. Still others suffer unspeakably and are beyond the reach of anyone’s intervention, even that of the God who gave mankind freedom and respects his free choices, even though their consequences turn out to be tragic.
In her Diary, St Faustina wrote: “When Sister Dominika died at around one o’clock in the night, she came to me and gave me to know that she was dead. I prayed fervently for her. In the morning the sisters told me that she was no longer alive — and I replied that I knew, because she had visited me. The sister infirmarian asked me to help dress her. And then when I was alone with her, the Lord gave me to know that she was still suffering in Purgatory. I redoubled my prayers for her. However, despite the zeal with which I always pray for our deceased sisters, I got mixed up as regards the days, and instead of offering three days of prayer, as the rule directs us to do, by mistake, I offered only two days. On the fourth day she gave me to know that I still owed her prayers and that she was in need of them. I immediately formed the intention to offer the whole day for her, and not just this day, but much more, as love of neighbor dictated to me” (Diary 1382).
There are many accounts of people returning from “that world”. The “dead” appear not only to the holy, but also to those who are indifferent to religion, and even to people who don’t believe in life beyond the grave. (Now they finally believe.)
They appear to their loved ones or to people completely unknown to them. Sometimes they seem to be connected with some place. They may knock on doors or appear suddenly, even through closed doors. Sometimes they present themselves as they looked in life, while other times they appear as hazy, indistinct apparitions. Some look clearly content and happy, while others are suffering. Some remain silent, others ask for prayer or for Masses in their intention. Agnostics ask: “What do we know about life beyond the grave? Has anyone returned from there?” Of course. Many have returned.
Through His Church, Jesus teaches us that if a person dies in friendship with God and has made reparations for the sins that he had the misfortune to have committed during his earthly pilgrimage, at the moment of death he will enter into eternal life with God. The Word of God says: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
If a person dies united with God, but did not make full reparations for the sins he committed, at the moment of death, after Judgement, he will go to Purgatory, so that there — living out the biblical example — he can make amends for everything, down to the last penny. He is saved, and in the future, after atoning for his sins, he will enter into heaven. St Gregory of Nyssa wrote: “The soul which has shed its body cannot partake of the divine life until the purifying fire removes the stains which adhere to him.” Someone might ask “what about the penance assigned by the priest after confession?” But that is often symbolic and constitutes more of an encouragement to undertake penance for oneself.
Someone who violates God’s commandments and dies in serious sins, without contrition for them, remains, by his own choice, separated from God
There is also, unfortunately, a third possibility: someone who violates God’s commandments and dies in serious sins, without contrition for them, remains, by his own choice, separated from God, the source of love, truth and beauty, for all eternity. Just as the happiness of heaven is unimaginable, so is the suffering in hell.
Some saints (Bl. Catherine Emmerich, St Catherine of Genoa, St Bridget of Sweden, St Stanislaus Papczynski and others) received the grace of seeing Purgatory. Sister Faustina was taken there by her Guardian Angel. About this event, she writes: “Jesus said that on the following night He would let me know for whom I should pray. [The next night] I saw my Guardian Angel who ordered me to follow him. In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves; only we can come to their aid. The flames which were burning them did not touch me at all. My Guardian Angel did not leave me for an instant. I asked these souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God. I saw Our Lady visiting the souls in Purgatory. The souls call her ‘The Star of the Sea’. She brings them refreshment. I wanted to talk with them some more, but my Guardian Angel beckoned me to leave. We went out of that prison of suffering. [I heard an interior voice] which said my mercy does not want this, but justice demands it. Since that time I am in closer communion with the suffering souls” (Diary 20).
How greatly do the souls in Purgatory suffer? St Augustine surmised that one day of suffering in Purgatory could be compared to thousands of days of suffering on earth. On other occasions, he admonished: “Come and help these powerless souls whose torments are incomparably greater than anything anyone can suffer in this life”. St Anselm similarly stated that the smallest punishment in Purgatory is greatly more severe than the greatest suffering on earth. And how long does it last? The Magisterium of the Church has no official answer to that question. However, the great theologian St Robert Bellarmine wrote: “It is certain that the suffering in Purgatory can last ten or even twenty years. I myself would hazard to submit that it could be a hundred or a thousand years”.
The truth about the communion of saints reminds us that we, who are yet living on earth, are in a position to help our loved ones who are suffering in Purgatory. It is within our power to ease and shorten their suffering, or even to free them completely from Purgatory. They themselves can no longer help themselves. At the moment of bodily death, the time for the correction of life and atonement for sins ends irrevocably. In this context, we are not surprised at the words of St Stanislaus Papczyński, which are similar to those of many other saints: “The act of interceding with God to plead for the liberation of souls from the flames of Purgatory is among the greatest acts of love […]. Anyone who is not moved by their suffering and declines to offer help even though he is able to do so is simply heartless and impious.”
How can we help?
What can we do to help souls in Purgatory? The greatest help is the offering of a Holy Mass for the intentions of the deceased; that is, the sacrifice of Jesus Himself. We can also offer our own sufferings, abstinences, afflictions and adversities. It doesn’t matter how small they may be; if we offer them consciously to God for the souls, they are helpful. Also helpful are our good works, prayers, fasting and alms. St Faustina offered her “entire day” for Sister Dominika; that is to say, all her prayers, work and sufferings, and everything she did in the course of the day.
“In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls” (St Faustina)
Indulgences also are a great help for souls. They can be either partial or plenary. A partial indulgence brings the soothing or shortening of the sufferings of Purgatory, while a plenary indulgence frees the soul from Purgatory completely. Imagine what a treasure that is for them! Their suffering ended! The beginning of an endless life of perfect happiness. The Lord Jesus told St Faustina: “All these souls are greatly loved by me. They are making retribution to my justice. It is in your power to bring them relief. Draw all the indulgences from the treasury of my Church and offer them on their behalf … Oh, if you only knew the torments they suffer, you would continually offer for them the alms of the spirit and pay off their debt to my justice.” (Diary 1226).
The Lord Jesus gave Peter the authority that is called “key authority”: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).
A plenary indulgence is the remission of all the punishments of Purgatory. Through the “key authority”, the Church draws from the treasury of Jesus’ merits and those of the saints and designates this spiritual good as atonement for the sins which a person did not fully atone for in his earthly life. The Pope determines how the faithful can open this treasury in order to draw from it. Here are some of the things that are most important for us from these instructions:
1. In order to take advantage of a plenary indulgence, it is necessary to perform specific pious acts.
Despite popular belief, we can avail ourselves of a plenary indulgence not just a few times a year but every day. There are four pious acts (five in Poland) which we can perform every day that are associated with a plenary indulgence. They are the following: half an hour of adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament, half an hour of reading the Holy Scriptures, praying one course — that is five mysteries — of the Holy Rosary (this should be done in a church or chapel; if outside a church, it should be done together with another person), and praying the Stations of the Cross. In Poland, a plenary indulgence is also associated with the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy in a church or chapel. We must perform one of the above practices.
2. Sacramental confession and receiving Holy Communion are also conditions of availing oneself of a plenary indulgence. From a single confession, one can receive multiple indulgences.
3. Thirdly, one should pray any prayer for the Pope’s stated intentions (we don’t have to know what the specific intention is). For example, it could be Our Father or Hail Mary.
4. Beyond this, it is necessary to shun any association with sins, even the most common ones. If our disposition is somehow lacking, the faithful will receive the indulgence, but it will be partial, not plenary. Unfortunately, we are inclined towards a variety of sins, such as wasting time, gossiping, spending money on stupid things, etc. We know which sins we bring to confession either always or often. That is exactly what shows us that we are attached to them. We must undertake a determined resistance towards all sins, and especially serious ones. We should nonetheless devote ourselves to fulfilling the requirements of the plenary indulgence, not waiting until we achieve our own perfection. Our efforts to struggle against our weaknesses bear witness to our good will, and God will certainly take this into consideration. If someone would like to give us $10,000 for a small job but ultimately gives us only $8,000 or $9,000 because we didn’t complete the job in the proper manner, we would still have something to be happy about and grateful for.
There are other possibilities for attaining a plenary indulgence, but they are associated with particular days in the course of the liturgical year. My intention here has been to call your attention to the simplest and most easily attainable ways to fulfil the requirements of the indulgence.
Let me offer an illustration of what I’ve explained above. Someone goes to Holy Mass daily. He wants to fulfil a plenary indulgence every day so as not to squander such a great goodness which is so readily within his reach. So he arrives at church ten minutes before Mass or stays ten minutes after Mass and recites the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The Chaplet is one of the practices designated for a plenary indulgence (only in Poland). During the mass, he receives Holy Communion (after going to confession, if necessary), and, finally, returning home, he prays the Our Father and Hail Mary for the intentions designated by the Pope. And that’s all that is necessary to fulfil the requirements for the indulgence. (We would also like to point out that for the relief of the soul in Purgatory you can even offer the effort of getting to church and any difficulties associated with it; it may be raining, it may be cold and it would be more comfortable to stay at home. You can offer Holy Communion and your entire participation in the Holy Mass, which is the most important of all prayers.) In many churches, they pray the rosary, on Thursdays there may be adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament, frequently there will be Stations of the Cross on Fridays. These are additional devotions designated for fulfilling a plenary indulgence.
We can avail ourselves of a plenary indulgence not just a few times a year but every day
If someone only attends mass on Sundays, he could do as explained above; that is to say, recite the Chaplet and the required prayers, along with receiving Holy Communion. Or he could choose another practice, such as meditating on the day’s readings for half an hour at home — which is also a good way to prepare oneself for attending Holy Mass.
Half an hour of reading the scriptures is designated for the fulfilling of a plenary indulgence, so another way would be as follows: in the morning, receive Holy Communion at the Holy Mass and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father; then in the evening, pray the rosary together with the family.
One mustn’t lose sight of the intention of fulfilling the indulgence and offering it for a specific person: a recently deceased relative or neighbour; or more generally, for example, for the deceased of the family, deceased friends, souls about whom their loved ones have forgotten, the victims of ongoing war or in general souls in Purgatory. It is best to do this through the intervention of the Blessed Virgin. She knows who needs our help the most: “I wish to offer a plenary indulgence and through your hands, Blessed Mother, I offer it to God for the souls in Purgatory. I beg that through your intervention and the merits of this indulgence a soul may be released from Purgatory.”
To conclude, let us remember one more important thing. By helping the souls in Purgatory, we gain friends for ourselves in heaven. Those who are released thanks to our actions abide with God. The saints do not forget their benefactors. They will be powerful intercessors for us. Padre Pio said: “We must pray for the souls in Purgatory. It is incredible what they can do for the good of our souls out of gratitude for those on earth who remembered to pray for them”. St John Marie Vianney states: “Oh, if it were only known […] what graces we can gain from their intercessions, they wouldn’t be so neglected”. St Catherine of Bologna in turn repeated frequently: “Many times those things that couldn’t be granted through the saints in heaven I received immediately when I appealed to the souls in Purgatory”.
“Oh, if it were only known […] what graces we can gain from their intercessions, they wouldn’t be so neglected” (St John Marie Vianney)
How can the intercessions of the souls in Purgatory be so potent? Because by helping them we establish a personal connection with them; it is a specific person who will have been helped out of a situation that was unfathomably difficult for them. I effected their release from great suffering. As weak and sinful as we are, think of how grateful we are to those who have helped us. The saints are no longer either weak or sinful, and their gratitude, like everything in heaven, is perfect. We have a completely different relationship with St Anthony, St Stanislaus or St Joseph. Did I ever do anything good for them? I expect to get something. I am one of a great many supplicants. However, I gave “my saints” something important, even though I didn’t know them by name (one day I will see them and get to know them). Admittedly, it didn’t require great effort on my part, but for them it was invaluable. First I helped, now I ask for help, since I myself am in trouble. Without doubt, they will zealously intercede for me with God.
God created that which is seen and that which is not seen. He recommends that with our heart’s eyes we “look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen” (2 Cor. 4:18), which we know exists because He tells us it does. By doing this, we will notice people who dramatically need help and are sometimes abandoned, even by their loved ones, who are only looking at what they see with their bodily eyes. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matt. 5:7) — this is the promise that the Lord Jesus Himself gives us. Let’s be merciful towards these souls. Let’s do for them what we would want others to do for us when we depart this world. Someone put it beautifully: as a rock thrown into the air falls back to earth, so our prayers also return to us.