The Eastern Orthodox Church designates Lent as a time of prayer for those who have gone before us. I think this observance is an appropriate gesture, especially since 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 to difficult to forget.
Due to a very personal family experience, I strongly support praying for those on the other side of the veil; an act that is close to my heart. I know personally the agony of a soul who is desperate for my prayers. I have learned through personal experience that souls in purgatory, although they cannot pray for themselves, press on the most sensitive of their relatives for prayer.
It took years before I understood the emotional weight I carried. The seemingly heavy rock in my chest was not mine. What I felt was my grandmother’s guilt, shame and sense of unforgiven sin in my own emotions. Since we are all part of the Communion of Saints, part of the Mystical Body of Christ, I apparently was sensitive to her pleading for my attention. I heard her negative words interiorly, and again the words I heard seemed to condemn me. 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 her 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.
The truth is we are all connected in the Body of Christ. The communion of saints, of all souls, is real, and is relevant. My grandmother affected me, and I am still connected to her, just as St. Paul tells us in his letters. So, I would say that praying for the dead, especially for those we have known, is not simply a requirement of Christian charity, but essential to our own spiritual health and well-being.
Purgatory is part of Catholic doctrine today, as it has always been 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. I know this dogma is true from personal experience.
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 (Spain) said that 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 which can gain indulgences for them. Their intercession is powerful. Pray unceasingly. We must empty Purgatory.”
Prayer 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.