When I was 12, I came upon a funeral prayer card in a used book. For years —and occasionally still — I prayed for Rudy Larson’s soul. I never met him, but I felt called to pray for him. It was my mom who instilled in me the importance of praying for the dead. An avid reader of theology and books on the saints, she was quick to relate any tidbits of particular interest to her children. My ears would perk up whenever she started talking about how the saints described purgatory and the suffering — as well as the great happiness — of holy souls.
Now that I am older, the list of people I feel called to pray for continues to grow, and my interest and concern for the souls in purgatory — the Church Suffering — also grows.
Susan Tassone is the author of nine books about purgatory. We discussed purgatory and two of her more recent books, St. Faustina Prayer Book for the Holy Souls in Purgatory (Our Sunday Visitor, 2016) and Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory: 365 Reflections (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014).
Q: Why should we pray for the deceased?
A: No prayer is ever wasted with God. Even if we pray for deceased persons who have no need of further purification, the prayers are not unavailing. These prayers allow the deceased in heaven to receive an increase in their intimacy of God’s love and an increase in their own intercessory power. St. Thomas Aquinas called this “accidental glory.” The lesson is: Never stop praying for your dead. God is never outdone in generosity!
Q: Is purgatory a place or a state?
A: In his general audience on Aug. 4, 1999, St. John Paul II stressed that the term purgatory does not indicate a place. Rather, it is “a condition of existence” where the deceased are being purified. He said:
Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed, this is precisely what is meant by the Church’s teaching on purgatory.
Q: Who goes to purgatory?
A: The souls in purgatory are those who died in the state of grace, but who are not yet cleansed from the remnants of sin and thus able to enter heaven. When their purification is complete, they join the holy ranks of the angels and saints as part of the Church Triumphant.
Q: Can we avoid purgatory?
A: Yes! We are given the grace to avoid purgatory. To avoid purgatory is to honor — to magnify — the redemption of Christ. As St. Paul teaches, “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more” (Romans 5:20). Let us show God our gratitude and take advantage of the great opportunities of paying our debt in life.
The ways to avoid purgatory include: First and foremost, do the will of God in the present moment in all things. Avoid sin at all cost, especially mortal sins and deliberate venial sins. Break off all bad habits. Go to monthly confession. Attend daily Mass. Pray the rosary daily. Forgive! Make sacrifices and acts of self-denial. Go to Eucharistic Adoration. Accept trials, pain, and death. Avoid judging. Be patient. Practice First Friday and First Saturday devotions. True love consists in carrying out God’s holy will.
Q: There doesn’t appear to be a consensus as to whether the fires of purgatory are composed of material fire or spiritual fire, but it does seem clear that the holy souls experience a burning sensation. Do you agree?
A: The holy souls burn with a “spiritual fever,” a yearning for God that surpasses the heat of any earthly fire. So we rightly speak of the “fire” of purgatory and the cleansing flames of love, with which Divine Charity reaches out to purify these souls. The saints experience this ardent love while they are alive. The holy souls’ suffering is one of longing and unease due to being separated from God. They see him and know him, but they are not fully united with him. I call this “holy fire.”
In his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), Pope Benedict XVI wonderfully captures the essence of the purifying nature of this divine love:
Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. … His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire.” But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God (47).
Q: Are the souls in purgatory able to intercede for us?
A: The holy souls in purgatory are unable to pray for themselves. However, they can intercede and pray for us while they are in purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective (958).
The more we pray for them, the more powerful their intercession is for us!
Q: In all of your years of studying and writing about purgatory, what has surprised you the most?
A: The more I learn about purgatory, the more I come to realize that this God-given gift isn’t about punishment. It’s about love. God is not trying to “get even” with people. Out of his mercy and love, he is preparing his unprepared children to be with him face-to-face for all eternity. Purgatory is a beautiful sign of God’s infinite love.
Q: How did you end up becoming an expert on purgatory?
A: Thank you for the compliment, but it’s others who have called me an “expert.” It is not a label I use. I hope that my small contribution has helped millions of souls. I also hope that I have brought consolation to those who grieve for their loved ones. That’s what I care about. I see myself as an ambassador for the suffering souls.
Q: Why do you think priests rarely preach about purgatory?
A: Post-Vatican II, purgatory was not very fashionable, and some of the clergy were embarrassed to talk about it. The result was that the youth of that generation were not catechized about purgatory — or about faith, grace, hell, and sin. This was in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Thankfully there has been a huge turnaround, and now purgatory is one of the most often asked-about topics among the faithful.
Q: What are the best ways we can help the holy souls in purgatory?
A: The best ways to help the souls in purgatory are what I call the “four pillars”: the Mass, the rosary, the Way of the Cross, and Eucharistic Adoration.
Of the four, the holy sacrifice of the Mass is the highest act of worship, the highest form of prayer, and the most efficacious means to help the souls in purgatory. Who do you miss the most? Who do you wish you could have done more for? Who hurt you? Who helped you spiritually or financially? Have a Mass offered for them!
You can have Gregorian Masses — a series of 30 holy Masses celebrated on 30 consecutive days for the repose of the soul of one departed person — said by the Pious Union of St. Joseph (PiousUnionofStJoseph.org).
Q: What role does the Virgin Mary play in aiding the souls in purgatory?
A: Our Lady is the most powerful intercessor for the souls in purgatory! She is interceding and offering our prayers to God unceasingly. St. Bernardine of Siena said, “Through her prayers and the application of her own merits, the Virgin has the power of freeing souls, especially her devotees, from purgatory.”
Q: Do the angels assist the holy souls in purgatory?
A: The angels console the holy souls. They inspire friends and relatives to offer a Mass and practice good deeds for a speedy delivery from purgatory. The angels inform the holy souls who is assisting them and who is in need of their help.
Q: Your book Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory: 365 Reflections provides thought-provoking tidbits of Scripture, meditations, reflections, and prayers for every day of the year. What makes your book unique?
A: What makes this book so unique is that it contains meditations that appeal to a variety of people. For those who learn better by reading the words of a philosopher, I have included thoughts from philosophical writers. For readers who like papal writings, my book has quotes from Pope Clement to Pope Francis. I’ve also included thoughts from Dante, Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, and modern apologists. Readers can choose what is most meaningful to them.
Q: One of the reasons you wrote Day by Day was to console those who are grieving the loss of loved ones. You also have a great concern for the souls of those who have committed suicide, as well as for their families. What do you want those grieving family members to know?
A: First, it’s critical not to assume the soul of the one who committed suicide is lost. It’s important to have Masses said for the person — especially Gregorian Masses. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives (2283).
Secondly, if someone you love has committed suicide, it’s normal to have a wide range of feelings: anger, sadness, fear, and so on. Don’t be afraid of what you are feeling. Day by Day includes reflections that address those feelings and will help you come to terms with them.
Q: Your book St. Faustina Prayer Book for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, has also been a best seller. What inspired you to write it?
A: Since 2006 I have wanted to write about St. Faustina and her deep devotion and great love for the holy souls. However, one book came along with another, and eight books later I came back to St. Faustina. My editor loved the idea and gave me the green light to write about the revelations on purgatory from her Diary. As providence would have it, the book was in the making just before Pope Francis declared the Jubilee Year of Mercy.