Just like gravity affects us whether we understand it or not, the Communion of Saints, the fellowship between the living and the dead, affects us whether we believe in it or not. There is a spiritual solidarity which literally binds us together. Even though most of us are oblivious to these invisible relationships, we are connected to those who have died in the Mystical Body of Christ and we can communicate with each other.
When most Catholics recite the Apostles' Creed, we often rush through the final list of dogmas as we say, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen". We rarely consider how this fellowship affects us personally. Yet, the unity between the members of the Church on earth, in Purgatory and in Heaven is not some esoteric doctrine which has nothing to do with our day to day lives. These dynamic relationships can influence our thoughts and emotions.
Getting Our Attention
Those who have died and passed through the veil use their connection to those on earth to try to get our attention any way they can. There are stories of people suffering from depression or insomnia for years then suddenly set free after interceding for the deceased, miscarriages and abortions in their families. In my own life, my Spiritual Director helped me discover the spiritual and emotional burdens I carried were not mine but symptoms of pressure from my paternal grandmother who had been pressing in on me for prayer for decades. She needed my intercession to release her soul into heaven. As Saint Paul explains, " to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living "(Rom. 14, 9).
Purgatory is part of Catholic doctrine today, as it has always been from the earliest days of the Church. To use a modern phrase, the bottom line is the Holy Souls in Purgatory are not able to pray for themselves or do anything at all to relieve their suffering. Period. This fact alone is enough to call us to pray because they rely on our prayers and efforts to help them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the doctrine of purgatory:
III. THE FINAL PURIFICATION, OR PURGATORY
1030 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.
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:607
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.
The Old Testament clearly states:
“It is a holy and wholesome thing to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.” (II Macab. XII., 46).
In the modern world, when many have come to doubt the Church’s teaching on Purgatory, the need for such prayers has only increased. Although they cannot pray for themselves, souls in purgatory pray for us, especially for those who pray for them. St. John Vianney said:
“If one knew what we may obtain from God by the intercession of the Poor Souls, they would not be so much abandoned. Let us pray a great deal for them, they will pray for us.”
St. Theresa of Avila said, she always obtained the favours which she asked from God, through the intercession of the Souls in Purgatory.
St. Padre Pio expressed his thought on Purgatory by simply saying,
“Holy Souls are eager for the prayers of the faithful . . . Their intercession is powerful. Pray unceasingly. We must empty Purgatory.”
My Grandmother Was In Purgatory
Souls in purgatory, although they cannot pray for themselves, press in on the most sensitive of their living relatives for prayer. In my family, that person was me. Responding to my deceased grandmother's distress by interceding was essential to my own well-being because ignoring her caused intense inner distress in me. The Eastern Orthodox Church designates Lent as a time of prayer for those who have gone before us. It is an excellent practice because during Lent, we are focusing on the power of Christ's Death and Resurrection to set all of us free, both the living and the dead
I am still dealing with the repercussions of my Ukrainian Orthodox grandmother's plea for prayer. My paternal, Ukrainian grandmother, who had been in Canada for barely 15 years, died accidentally under extreme duress as a young mother of three boys while still in her twenties. She became pregnant while her husband was at war. The incident occurred in the 1940’s, and thus she was denied a Christian burial in the Catholic Church. When my grandfather returned from the war, the young family left the Catholic Church and my grandfather remarried a Protestant Presbyterian. In turn, I too was raised in the Presbyterian Church with no knowledge of my Catholic roots until I converted at nineteen. My father pleaded with me to reconsider my conversion; his childhood memories of how the Church handled immigrants were too traumatic to forget.
It took years before I understood why I suffered from emotional and spiritual oppression. It was a shock to discover that the sensation of a heavy rock in my chest had nothing to do with my own sin but rather what I felt was my grandmother’s guilt, shame and sense of unforgiven sin. Since we are all part of the Communion of Saints, part of the Mystical Body of Christ, I apparently was sensitive to my grandmother's pleading for my attention. I heard her negative words interiorly, and again the words I heard seemed to condemn me personally. These spiritual, emotional and even physical burdens were simply the only way my grandmother could get my attention. She was confident that through persistence, I would respond to her request.
After two years of interceding for my grandmother in prayer, a priest (who is the official exorcist of my diocese) was finally led by God to give this poor soul absolution in the name of the Church; he sensed God telling him my grandmother's soul was very much present in the room with both of us. After we both received absolution, instantly, and I do mean immediately, I was free and I sensed my grandmother was filled with joy, as she literally flew into the arms of Christ. I still could burst out into songs of praise every time I think of my grandmother, and in thanksgiving, for the new joy which replaced the burdens, I carried for years. Although I am still dealing with the aftermath of my grandmother's demands on me, the root was severed by this priest.
Please, Pray for the Dead
I would say that praying for the dead, especially for those we have known, is not simply a requirement of Christian charity, but is also essential to our own spiritual health and well-being. Praying for the dead is one of the greatest acts of charity we can perform. Our prayers help them during their time in Purgatory so they can enter more quickly into the fullness of heaven. The Eastern Church designates Lent as a time of fervent prayer for the faithful departed. What a blessing if we would carry this charity throughout the year.