ASK FATHER: Can we pray to the Poor Souls in Purgatory to intercede for us?

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

On a recent podcast a priest said that asking a specific person in Purgatory to pray for you/us is necromancy. Thoughts?

My first reaction is that Father seems not to understand the difference between conjuring spirits and the unity of the Mystical Body of the Church.

“Necromancy” is from two Greek words: nekrós, dead and manteía, divination.   It is the attempt to communicate with the spirits of the dead by evocation, that is by summoning.  It is gravely sinful to do this.  Beyond superstition it opens one up to attacks by demons.   Invoking the intercession of a Poor Soul in Purgatory is nothing like summoning the spirits of the dead for reasons of communication.

In the Old Testament we read how abhorrent necromancy is to God (Deut 1:11-12) and that it is punishable by death (Lev 20:27 and cf. I Sam 28:9).  Saul found out the hard way with the witch of Endor.

There are the exceptional cases of “Purgatorians” who are enabled by God to appear to the living or to communicate things in some way. That is not necromancy, which involves the summoning of spirits which are certainly demons.

Let’s go deeper.

While it is clear that we can pray for the Poor Souls, the question is raised, “Can the poor souls pray for us?”  And, “Is asking a Poor Soul to intercede for us either harmful or, if not harmful, just a waste of time?”

I’m not trying to dodge this when I say “I don’t know for sure.”  But we can draw some conclusions.

This is a question on which great writers are divided and about which there is no official Church doctrine to which we must submit.

The Catholic Encyclopedia is helpful on this.  Always a good place to start.

The majority of writers – some great names among them – hold that the Poor Souls are not capable of praying for us because, as St. Robert Bellarmine in his De Purgatorio held, they lack any knowledge of our circumstances and of our possible requests.  They are not given the infused knowledge of the Blessed Souls in Heaven.  They are “poor” in that respect.

On the other hand, the great theologian Suarez in De Poenitentia thought that, though the Poor Souls don’t know specifically what we need or what we request, they know in general what people need and how much we depend on God’s grace.

St. Thomas Aquinas, whose teaching carries great weight (although we must remember that his teachings are not co-termimous with the teachings of the Church), says in STh II-II that the Poor Souls cannot pray actively because they are in a passive state.

On the other hand, St. Alphonsus Liguori in The Great Means of Salvation says that the Church does not invoke their intercession because they don’t know our prayers from us, but we can piously believe that God makes our prayers known to them.

St. Alphonsus cites the great mystic St. Catherine of Bologna who obtained favors from God through prayers to the Poor Souls.  Thus, St. Alphosus (HERE):

Again, it is disputed whether there is any use in recommending one’s self to the souls in purgatory. Some say that the souls in that state cannot pray for us; and these rely on the authority of St. Thomas, who says that those souls, while they are being purified by pain, are inferior to us, and therefore ‘are not in a state to pray for us, but rather require cur prayers.’ But many other Doctors, as Bellarmine, Sylvius, Cardinal Gotti, Lessius, Medina and others affirm with great probability, that we should piously believe that God manifests our prayer to those holy souls in order that they may pray for us; and that so the charitable interchange of mutual prayer may be kept up between them and us. Nor do St. Thomas’ words present much difficulty; for, as Sylvius and Gotti say, it is one thing not to be in a state to pray, another not to be able to pray. It is true that those souls are not in a state to pray, because, as St. Thomas says, while suffering they are inferior to us, and rather require our prayers; nevertheless, in this state they are well able to pray, as they are friends of God. If a father keeps a son whom he tenderly loves in confinement for some fault; if the son then is not in a state to pray for himself, is that any reason why he cannot pray for others? and may he not expect to obtain what he asks, knowing, as he does, his father’s affection for him? So the souls in purgatory, being beloved by God, and confirmed in grace, have absolutely no impediment to prevent them from praying for us. Still the Church does not invoke them, or implore their intercession, because ordinarily they have no cognizance of our prayers. But we may piously believe that God makes our prayers known to them; and then they, full of charity as they are, most assuredly do not omit to pray for us. St. Catharine of Bologna, whenever she desired any favor, had recourse to the souls in purgatory, and was immediately heard. She even testified that by the intercession of the souls in purgatory she had obtained many graces which she had not been able to obtain by the intercession of the saints.

The fact is, we are still in Communion with the Poor Souls as we are in Communion with the Saints in Heaven.  We all belong to the one Church, in unity of charity and, one might be allowed to think, prayer.

The fact is also that the Church doesn’t invoke intercession by the Poor Souls liturgically, though we constantly raise prayers to Heaven liturgically to intercede for the Poor Souls.

From that I conclude that we shouldn’t pray for the intercession by Poor Souls in a public or ritual way.  This seems to be part and parcel of why in the process for beatification there must not be public liturgical cult of the servant of God.

We are free to believe that the Poor Souls can intercede for us.  It doesn’t not harm us or them to ask the Poor Souls in a general way to pray for our needs on Earth.  It would not be wrong to ask for prayers and intercession provided the one we might have in mind is capable of doing so, as those in Heaven certainly are, and those in Purgatory perhaps could be.

We could make a reasonable assumption that someone has been admitted to the Beatific vision and pray to him for intercession, but in fact that soul is still in Purgatory.  Wasted prayer?  God knows what to do about it.  Sincere, devout prayer is not a waste of time.

Furthermore, the Poor Souls won’t be “Poor” forever.  We might say, “Please pray for me when you are in the Beatific Vision and you have infused knowledge of how and what to pray for.”

Drilling a little more, since we are Unreconstructed Ossified Manualists, we ask the manuals.

Ludwig Ott in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (p. 323) says that it is a sententia probabilis that the Poor Souls can intercede for us because of our unity in the Church.  Ott says that Pope Leo XIII in 1889 “ratified an indulgenced prayer in which the poor souls are appealed to in dangers of body and soul.”

Citing Thomas against invocation of Poor Souls, Ott also says,

“the Church has never frowned on the invocation of the Poor Souls –  a practice which is widespread among the Faithful and which has been advocated by many theologians”.

Tanquerey in his Manual of Dogmatic Theology says (1286):

b. the souls detained in purgatory can pray for us. This is the more common opinion.  On the one hand, out of charity they love us; on the other hand, because they are dear to God, nothing impedes their prayers from being heard.

Finally, I turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

958 Communion with the dead. “In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.” Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.

And

962 “We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers” (Paul VI, CPG § 30).

While the “dead who are being purified” are not yet in Heaven, they are nevertheless holy souls who are not quite ready for the bliss of Heaven due to the justice required in temporal punishment due to sin or some last attachments.

In my opinion, the Poor Souls do not have specific knowledge of our needs or prayers for intercession unless God gives it to them for some reason.  Again, there are also exceptional cases when “Purgatorians” are enabled by God to communicate things to us, primarily their need for prayers and warnings to shape up.  If that is the case, then God could also give them things to pray for.   Perhaps God might do this directly or perhaps through the agency of the Guardian Angels of the Poor Souls.  Their Angel Guardians do not abandon the Poor Souls, after all, and the angels would know what we need.

We can and should, by the way, invoke the help of our angels, not by names, which we cannot know, but in a general sense: “angel of my mother, who is sad”, “angel of Bill at work who seems to hate me, help us to work things out”.  We know only three names of angels from Scripture.  A document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instructs us not to invoke any angels by a name unless the three we know: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

Evocation of spirits is superstitious and sinful.  Prayer to Poor Souls for intercession with God is not.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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11 Comments

  1. tzabiega says:

    The one thing that is certain is that the Souls in Heaven are prayer warriors, praying unceasingly. We on earth, except for the most holy of us, are not so consistent at praying. Since the Souls in Purgatory are being purified, therefore prepared, to enter Heaven, it would seem that they would pray more than us. This is because going from a state of praying somewhat (on earth) to praying not at all (Purgatory) to praying constantly (Heaven) would seem illogical to me. Since their prayers for themselves will not help them get out of Purgatory faster, these Holy Souls must be praying for others. So I think (though it is just my unproven hypothesis), that the Holy Souls would be praying for us in some way, whether simply because they remember those whom they left behind on earth, or because we ask them for prayers. Frankly, it cannot hurt to ask for their prayers because they are Holy Souls nonetheless.

    Besides that, what about all those prayers to Servants of God people often pray to obtain miracles which are then used in their beatification process? Being pronounced a Servant of God does not mean that person is already in Heaven, so I think many people who do pray for the intercession of those Servants of God may be inadvertently praying to Souls in Purgatory.

  2. ProfessorCover says:

    I was going to make a point similar to that of tzabiega. Before we know a deceased person is actually a saint in heaven, there must be a miracle attributed to the soul. But if that soul had to pass through purgatory, then some of those prayers must have been to someone in purgatory. I even heard on a Catholic radio station last week the recommendation that we pray to Benedict XVI so he can do a miracle and the church can declare him a saint. This while others were recommending we pray for him, which to me is much more charitable. Be that as it may, I fantasize that Pope Francis will declare him patron of the TLM.

  3. TonyO says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z. So helpfully clear here, spelling out what is certain, what is probable, and what is permitted to be believed.

    I had always been taught that, being in Purgatory meaning that they cannot merit any favors from God, and therefore I assumed that they cannot help with intercessory prayers on our behalf.

    But I suspect now that this is incomplete: The souls in Purgatory are in the state of grace, and they certainly hold good intentions toward us who remain on Earth, while also having the bond of charity with God. So, it seems to stand to reason that they continue to be essentially capable of requesting of God that He aid us. As to whether they can know of our requests: it is neither impossible nor implausible that God should be willing to make them aware of our requests, if they can act on them. And even without hearing our specific requests, they could (and, likely, would) retain habitual good will toward specific individuals whom they want to see in heaven with them. The remaining question is whether, by their so asking, whether that request will receive more favor from God than if they had not interceded. And since it appears (if my memory is still correct) that even the saints themselves do not gain additional merit in heaven, the souls in Purgatory being no longer able to gain merit is not per se an impediment to their prayers have some efficacy – perhaps at least as much efficacy as the prayers of our fellow members of the Church Militant on Earth. And nobody questions that our prayers here on Earth for our fellow earthly pilgrims have efficacy. Ultimately, ALL of our prayers and good works have efficacy through their being connected to Christ’s salvific sacrifice, and God acts favorably on the prayers of his saints for the same ultimate reason, i.e. God is (effectively) “rewarding” Christ’s own meritorious acts of love in hearing and granting the prayers of the faithful. Those prayers coming from the souls in Purgatory does not appear to represent an essential difference in terms of God’s willingness to grant them. So far as I can see, at least.

  4. Thomas Greninger says:

    What about angel names such as Uriel, which float around as traditions. Catholic Encyclopedia lists Uriel as coming from a Jewish source, but I remember hearing him associated at some point with the angel at the Holy Sepulcher. As such I have included his name with the other Archangels when I ask their intercession, for quite a while, unaware of the CDF document you have mentioned.

    Do you have any thoughts on this matter?

  5. On June 19th while in Fatima with my Mother and sister, my Father died at his home in California from what we believe was a drug overdose/heart attack, he was only 48 yrs old. Little did I know that the night that I forgave him in front of the bush that our lady appeared on (We hadn’t spoke for the previous 3 yrs), that he was going to die hours after that event. It was 2 weeks from my 19th birthday and it crushed me when I returned home to find out that he had died and he didn’t get the letter that I had sent him that night from Fatima that I wrote, it was still in his mailbox. We were all very sad about Dad dying for a great many reasons, one of them being that he hadn’t practiced any faith for at least 20 yrs and was not living a good life when he passed.

    A month after he died, my sister had a dream, she was in the cafeteria of our intermediate school, she was the only one in there and she said that she heard a door open from the back and in came 3 figures, she saw 2 figures in black uniforms and she couldn’t see their faces, in between them in an orange jumpsuit was our Dad, he was in chains around his arms and feet. They led him to the table that was now in front of my sister, one of his old school lunch tables with the round orange seats. He sat down across from her, she said he looked very tired and had large bags under his eyes. The guards continued to stand next to him on either side. He told my sister that he had been saved from damnation and that it was a very close call, that he was only saved through the prayers that his children would say for him through their lives. He said that where he was, he was going to be there for a long time, but he would eventually make it to paradise. He stood up and was escorted back out and then she woke up. It will be 24 yrs this coming June, we still pray for Dad all the time.

    I have a very very strong belief and devotion to the Holy Souls. I have had them help me through many difficult times in my life and I offer all of my sufferings up for them. In 2010 when I was in a religious community, I remember offering up communion for the holy souls and as I was going back to my pew, I heard a voice of what sounded like a young child say “Thank You”, no one was around me or near me and I knew it was a holy soul. I’m saddened that the Priest in your article doesn’t understand the Holy Souls.

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  7. Imrahil says:

    Dear TonyO,

    even the saints in Heaven cannot precisely merit – the time for meriting is over for them too -, but they obviously can effectively pray for us. Hence, the effect of prayer is not identical to meriting its result.

    Which is, after all, logical; for the essence of merit is acquiring some right by what one does (even if the very fact that we are able to merit is an undeserved gift from God). The essence of (supplicatory) prayer, on the other had, is begging for some undeserved favor. (The fact that for the living, prayer, including supplicatory prayer, is also a meritorious act is true, but not the point here.)

  8. JamesM says:

    One point that struck me was the question referred to a “specific person”

    How does the original questioner know that any specific person is in purgatory?

  9. Fr. Kelly says:

    @Thomas Greninger
    The U___ name which is found in some apocryphal writings has come up in this blog before, and is perhaps part of the reason for the oft-repeated warning against invoking other names for angels.

    I dare say, Our host does have thoughts on this matter, as he expressed them in the post above:
    “We know only three names of angels from Scripture. A document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instructs us not to invoke any angels by a name unless the three we know: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.”

  10. Philliesgirl says:

    I have made it my practice to say the Litany for the Holy Souls every day for some time now and at the end I ask the Eternal Father to allow the Holy Souls to pray for me and a specific intention I have.

  11. Kent Wendler says:

    My understanding is that the Church teaches that at death the human soul/spirit separates from its now deceased body for a duration until it is reunited with its resurrected glorified body.

    It is also my understanding that purely spiritual beings, including humans during this period, are not part of material creation. This would imply that they are also not bound by any laws of material creation – including the passage of time. Thus, earthly calendar and clock time are irrelevant to them. (Pope Benedict did allow in Spe Salvi that purgation might seem to be a very quick happening.)

    I suspect that it is likely that even though our spirits are bound to our mortal bodies, subject to physical limitations before our deaths, our spirits are not so limited and can reach out to anyone who has not damned themselves.

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