Helping the Souls in Purgatory

Her husband had died some months previously when she asked a priest, “How can I get Bill into heaven?”

The priest responded, “You attend Mass every day: offer your Mass for him. That’s very powerful.”

The Council of Trent taught that the best way to aid the souls in purgatory is through the “sacrifice of the altar,” the Mass. This, of course, is why Catholics have, for centuries, had Masses said for their beloved dead.

Is it better to have a priest offer a Mass for your loved ones who have died? It seems so because the priest offers Mass in the “person of Christ.” It is believed that special graces may be received when a priest offers the Mass. Nonetheless, if one offers a Mass that he or she attends, that is a most powerful aid to the departed souls (and no offering stipend is expected!).

Bl. Henry Suso
In the 14th century, Dominican Bl. Henry Suso wrote in his autobiographical book, Life of The Servant, that he and a brother priest promised that each would offer Masses for the other for one year after the death of whoever died first. When his friend died, he offered many prayers and penances for him, but forgot about the Masses. The deceased appeared to him, and scolded him for his neglect. He asked if his many prayers and penances were not enough. “No,” said his friend, “It is the blood of Christ that is needed to … deliver me from these frightful torments.” Bl. Henry immediately got priest friends to join him in offering many Masses for his friend. Shortly after, his friend appeared in glory to thank him for delivering him from Purgatory.

Other ways to help the dead are by indulgences. Yes, we still recommend them! Why so? An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] §1471.) And again, “Every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory” (CCC n. 1472).

Of course, in the time of Martin Luther, there were abuses regarding indulgences, to which Luther rightly protested. At one point, a Dominican priest, Johann Tetzel proclaimed, “As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs.” The Church strongly condemned such abuses. Nonetheless, indulgences are still very much part of the teaching of the Church. The Council of Trent stated that it, “condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless, or that the Church does not have the power to grant them” (Trent, session 25). To receive an indulgence, a person must have the (general, at least) intention to receive it. Indulgences may be offered for the dead, or for the person per forming the indulgenced work, but not for another living person. There are two types of indulgences, plenary and partial.

Plenary Indulgences
A plenary indulgence removes all temporal punishment due to sin. In other words, it eliminates entirely the need for purgatory at the time it is gained. A plenary indulgence removes all our temporal punishment due to sin if offered for ourselves, but it does not necessarily do so for the dead person for whom we might offer it. For the dead, indulgences are offered by “suffrage,” that is, as a prayer, without certainty that it is plenary. The effects of such an indulgence are “according to the hidden designs of God’s mercy.” (Lest We Forget by Bl. James Alberione, p. 151.) Nonetheless, such an indulgence would be a powerful aid to a person in purgatory. To receive a plenary indulgence, the activity must be accompanied by the four requirements given below. (Enchiridion of Indulgences at indulg.html), in addition to the person being in the state of grace. Only one plenary indulgence may be gained per day, except in danger of death.

There exist four Conditions for a plenary indulgence:

  1. Sacramental Confession within 20 days before or after the work,
  2. Eucharistic Communion, and
  3. Prayer for the intention of the Holy Father (one Our Father and one Hail Mary suffice). It is “fitting” that receiving Communion and prayers for the Holy Father take place on the same day as the indulgenced work.
  4. All attachment to sin, including venial sin is absent. This does not mean freedom from all sin, but a sincere willingness to overcome every sin in your life.

As we can see from this, attaining a plenary indulgence requires a commitment to strive for Christian perfection.

Works for A Plenary Indulgence:
A plenary indulgence may be received for any of the following works on any day of the year (with the four requirements listed above):

  1. Visit the Most Blessed Sacrament for at least one half hour.
  2. Recitation of the Marian Rosary recited in a church or public oratory or in a family group, a religious community or pious association.
  3. Read Sacred Scripture with due veneration for at least one half an hour.
  4. Piously make the Way of the Cross.

There are a good number of other works which qualify for a plenary indulgence on certain days or occasions. See: for a list.

What if a person tries to gain a plenary indulgence but is not adequately detached from venial sin? He would gain a powerful partial indulgence. Consider this: if a daily communicant prayed, for example, the rosary in church after Mass each day, and offered the indulgence for a soul in Purgatory, how many thousands of souls would greet and thank them when they arrived in the Kingdom!

Partial Indulgences
A partial indulgence is one which removes part of a person’s temporal punishment, i.e., part of one’s purgatorial debt. There are many works or activities which bring about a partial indulgence. Just a few of these are as follows (there are many others):

  1. Devoutly use an article of devotion (crucifix or cross, rosary, scapular or medal) blessed by a priest.
  2. Teach or study Christian Doctrine.
  3. Participate in a public novena before the feast of Christmas, Pentecost, or the Immaculate Conception.
  4. Recite a prayer approved by the Church for priestly or religious vocations. (See for example,
  5. Spend some time in mental prayer.
  6. Listen with devotion to a homily.
  7. Read Sacred Scripture with due veneration.
  8. Make the Sign of the Cross devotedly, while saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (at least inwardly).
  9. Visit the Blessed Sacrament for any period of time.
  10. Pray the Rosary privately.

As we saw above, “Participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass, or the Sacraments, is not enriched by indulgences due to the surpassing [power] …that they have in themselves” (p. 15 Enchiridion).

General Activities
There are three other “general grants” for gaining a partial indulgence:

  1. While performing one’s duties, and in dealing with hardships, raise his or her mind in humble confidence to God, adding–even if only mentally–some pious words. (An example of the latter might be to say, “Praise God” in a difficult situation.)
  2. In a spirit of faith and mercy, give of oneself, or of one’s goods, to serve brothers and sisters in need.
  3. In a spirit of penance, deprive oneself of what is licit and pleasing to one (i.e., fast).

Is it possible to become too focused on indulgences, and focus too little on the Lord and loving him? Yes. It would be best to become aware of the indulgenced prayers, and then to ask once for God to give us, or the souls in purgatory, every possible indulgence, and then pursue holiness without concern for indulgences.

St. Teresa of Ávila tells of a Religious sister who sought every indulgence available. Her life was quite ordinary, and she was not particularly virtuous. When the sister died, Teresa saw her soul enter heaven almost immediately after her death. Teresa expressed her surprise over this, but the Lord told her: “It was by that means [the indulgences] that she had made up almost the whole of her debt, which was quite considerable, before her death…”

One holy soul in Purgatory reported, “Very few of us here get any prayers; the majority of us are totally abandoned, with no thought or prayers offered for us from those on earth.” What a tragedy! It seems that priests seldom speak about indulgences perhaps because of the abuses of the sixteenth century. However, indulgences are still a valid part of our Catholic faith. We should pass the word on to our parishioners about indulgences because it will motivate them to pursue the way of perfection. Not only should we preach about them, but we should also provide information on them in the parish bulletin. And, of course, encouraging our parishioner to seek indulgences will help our departed souls in purgatory immensely.

Rev. Thomas G. Morrow About Rev. Thomas G. Morrow

Reverend Thomas G. Morrow has a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. Fr. Morrow is a priest of the Washington (DC) Archdiocese. He is the author of several books, including Be Holy: A Catholic's Guide to the Spiritual Life. His website is:


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