ASK FATHER: St. Gertrude’s Prayer and releasing 1000 souls from Purgatory

From a reader….


I’m presenting an argument, I know that “St. Gertrude’s Prayer doesn’t release 1000 souls, although she was very saintly like so I don’t deny that her fervor in prayer released many souls, HOWEVER, I am uneasy with the fact that if it even belongs to this mystic, how can the laity offer the masses, when only priests can offer the mass for the dead. I never get a good feeling when I say this prayer. I avoid it. It’s been said we should reject all prayers that promises to release any amount of souls.

There’s a lot going on here.

First,  St. Gertrude was a 13th c. Benedictine, saint and mystic.  She received private revelations.  She is often called “the Great”.  She was an early promoter of veneration of Sacred Heart.

What is the St. Gertrude Prayer?

“Eternal Father, I offer You the most precious blood of thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal Church, for those in my own home, and in my family. Amen.”

That’s a lovely prayer.

Nowhere in the writings that have come down to us did Gertrude make the claim about 1000 souls.

For the last couple centuries, as a matter of fact, the Church has tried to weed out specious claims that have attached themselves to certain pious practices.   This is precisely one of those claims.   For this reason the Church abolished the “Toties Quoties” indulgences, etc. (practices by which one could gain any number of plenary indulgences in a day).

So, yes, reject the notion or claim that any prayer will release a certain number of souls from purgatory.  However, that doesn’t mean that the prayer is a bad prayer.  Claims about it are bad.  We can say the same for perfectly acceptable prayers on old holy cards that say that a certain number of days reduced for Purgatory (or other time measures) are obtained.   Number of souls or of days?  No.  But the prayers can still be good!

When we are dealing with indulgences, we are dealing with serious spiritual actions and implications.   They should be treated with the sobriety they deserve.

You also mention offering Masses for the Dead.   Yes, only priests can say those Masses.  However, lay people can ask that they be said and then participate in them.  By baptism, lay people share in the priesthood of Christ.  They are not priests like ordained priests are.  But, by baptism lay people offer spiritual sacrifices.  You are enabled to offer acceptable and pleasing sacrifices and prayers to the Lord.

Even if you cannot go to Mass, you can in prayer still participate by desire.  Somewhere a Mass is being said right now.  There is an old prayer, in the form of a poem, much in the language of a different and more effusive period, about sending your Guardian Angel to be at Mass in your place.

Go, my Angel Guardian dear,
To church for me, the Mass to hear.
Go, kneel devoutly at my place
And treasure for me every grace.
At the Offertory time
Please offer me to God Divine.
All I have and all I am,
Present it with the Precious Lamb.
Adore for me the great Oblation.
Pray for all I hold most dear
Be they far or be they near.
Remember too, my own dear dead
For whom Christ’s Precious Blood was shed.
And at Communion bring to me
Christ’s Flesh and Blood, my food to be.
To give me strength and holy grace
A pledge to see Him face to face
And when the Holy Mass is done
Then with His blessing, come back home.

Yes, it’s a little syrupy, but there’s nothing wrong with that!  It is okay to use this emotional and flowery language for prayer along with the more concise and sober prayers we use.  Perhaps praying as children pray could be a good idea.

Also, it is a work of mercy to pray for the dead.  As such, we are confident that prayer for the dead is good and it is effective.   We believe that Christ gave His authority to the Church to bind and to loose, on the basis of, drawing from the treasury of His merits and those of the saints.   We should go to this treasury often!  It is superabundant.  Let’s be generous and not stingy or negligent.

Finally, prayers are not offered in vain.  Sometimes God says no, but that is no obstacle.  Somehow, our prayers are effective, made so by God, even if we don’t see the fruits of those prayers right away.   In the General Judgment, God will show us how these things all work together.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JustaSinner says:

    Can a lay person make their own prayers? I mean compose the words, meter and tone?

  2. ex seaxe says:

    Wikipedia says “These days or years were meant to represent the equivalent of time spent in penance, although it was widely taken to mean time spent in Purgatory.” Which I think is what I was told at school, 65 or more years ago.
    Of course the public penances of the church have not been evident, in most places, for the last 400 or so years, despite the Council of Trent. However the blog Canticum Salomonis happens to have a current piece about it in Rouen in 1673, and in the Isle of Man the Anglican Bishop Thomas Wilson was energetically trying to enforce it 300 years ago (to the point of being thrown into prison for imposing penance on the Governor’s wife for slander).

  3. Pius Admirabilis says:

    There is also this tradition where the Pater noster prayers of Bridget of Sweden is connected with the savings of souls in Purgatory, or the “Gregorian Masses” where a specific number of Masses need to be said in order to attain some divine favor. Those have been abolished and condemned by the Council of Trent. The St. Bridget prayers have been recommended continuously, but the “promises” are a later addition and do not authentically belong to them.

  4. Just Some Guy says:

    You got the nail on the head, Father. There should be a simplicity and humility of a child inherent in our prayer, as well as the elaborate language of our patrimony. It reminds me of the prayer of a Benedictine monk, the elaborate Divine Office as well as that simple meditative prayer in their minor and grand silence. A very well written article.

  5. KateD says:

    We did the toties quoties this year as a family. It was so much fun! My kids are super competitive and what better way to direct that natural inclination than challenging eachother to pray as many prayers for the souls in Purgatory as possible? They were so creative about how they went about it, because we haven’t a clue what was actually done in the past. My youngest chose to kneel beside every pew and say a number of prayers at each as he advanced towards the front of the Church. Not wanting to be out done, his big brother went and started doing it on the other side. My daughter sat on her own and prayed while intently keeping her gaze directed at the tabernacle. We made it our Super Bowl day of prayers for souls in Purgatory.

    Beats the heck out of them sitting at home playing Nintendo or heaven knows what.

    God is not limited in what He can and will do. Perhaps their devotion and intention for those souls moved Him. Even the bad judge will eventually open the door and grant the request of the persistent petitioner.

    As for Saint Gertrude’s prayer, we pray it whenever we pass a cemetery and a form of it at the end of grace. If God sees fit to release 1,000 souls, well ALLELUIA! If not, at least they have the comfort of knowing we are thinking of them and praying for them and maybe they are able to derive some solace from it amidst their suffering.

    We have a house rule to NEVER discourage prayer. There is little enough of it being done as is.

    I for my part am happy to run in and out of the Church like a lunatic repeatedly, if it helps make up for some of the lack of prayer in the world today. I’m not too good or proud of dignified to be a fool for love’s sake.

  6. jaykay says:

    KateD: lovely! I’m sure you use Holy Water in your family as well. When using it, we can/should also pray for the relief of the Holy Souls. And bless the graves of our loved ones with it too. They will repay us!

  7. MrsMacD says:

    When I was a young teen, someone left that prayer at the back of the church, with the above mentioned promise of saving 1000 souls from purgatory. At that time I went to daily Mass with my grandmother who would go to the church for an hour before Mass. I had heard that if you prayed for the poor souls and obtained heaven for them, they would be your friends, so I would say this prayer over and over again trying to make friends.

  8. Therese says:

    MrsMacD, we have a sweet granddaughter who prays it for the same reason. ;-)

  9. WmHesch says:

    The notion of “1000 plenary indulgences” may sound crazy, but until 1968 there were 400+ plenary’s attached to prayers said while wearing the Blue Scapular or Cord of St. Francis, for example. They were called the “Station of the Blessed Sacrament” indulgences.

    The Way of the Cross also had the same indulgences attached until Pius XI simplifies them in 1931.

  10. Holy Office

    January 28, 1954

    Warning of the Holy Office concerning the “Promises of St. Bridget”

    In some places, a little work has been disseminated called the “Secret of Happiness: 15 prayers revealed by the Lord to St. Bridget in the Church of St. Paul at Rome”, published at Nice and elsewhere in several languages.

    Since it is asserted in this pamphlet that God made to St. Bridget certain promises, whose supernatural origin is uncertain, let local ordinaries take care not to grant permission for publishing or reprinting pamphlets or other writings which contain these promises.

    Given at Rome, from the offices of the Holy Office, 28 January 1954.

    Marius Crovini, Notary of the Supreme Holy Congregation of the Holy Office


    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  11. grumpyoldCatholic says:

    Is there still a Mass for the dead? with black vestments? or did Vatican II destroy that too? I remember serving them with the older priest. We had a special altar missal and all Vestments were black and the Mass was just for the dead. You could only do them on certain days.. If you look at the following calendar you will see a small x under the color of the day. Those were the days you could say a requiem Mass and the Mass was something like this

  12. jhayes says:

    Pius Admirabilis writes: the “Gregorian Masses” where a specific number of Masses need to be said in order to attain some divine favor. Those have been abolished and condemned by the Council of Trent.

    They haven’t been abolished. You can order a set of thirty Gregorian Masses to be said at Notre Dame in Paris

    Pour un Trentain dit grégorien (célébration de 30 messes consécutives, 30 jours), l’offrande est de 560 €.

  13. Pius Admirabilis says:

    @jhayes: That is unfortunate because the Council of Trent branded it as a superstition, and was very clear that it should be abolished everywhere. It’s one of those pious exercises that rely more on magic than faith. Ordering 30 Masses in a row is not a bad thing; on the contrary! But attributing to them some special divine favor/grace is dangerous, and not grounded in either the theology of Mass nor in general Revelation.

    But I also know of other instances where said Gregorian Masses are offered.

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