This coming Sunday is now widely known to have been designated by St John Paul II as Divine Mercy Sunday. This new feast has come about because of the revelations of Jesus to the late St Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun to whom John Paul II had a great personal devotion. Just as the revelations given in the 17th century to St Margaret Mary Alacoque were to emphasise the love of God through the image of His Sacred Heart, the message given to St Faustina concerned the mercy of God towards repentant sinners.
It is probably less well-known that Eastertide, including Divine Mercy Sunday, is also a time when many souls are released from purgatory. I have learnt this from Susan Tassone whose book, Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, was published last year by Our Sunday Visitor (for UK readers it can be found here). Susan, as she explained in a recent interview on Patheos, has made the Holy Souls her own special apostolate. Since 1993 she has been collecting Mass stipends for the Holy Souls that are given to missionary priests; she has raised $2 million so far for this purpose.
Susan is keen to explain to me that we should all offer Mass or indulgences for the Holy Souls or for our own deceased loved ones on Divine Mercy Sunday. Her book includes all St Faustina’s writings on purgatory, showing the link between God’s mercy towards sinners on earth and those who have died but who are not yet purified. As Susan says, the three key things to remember are that the “fire” of purgatory is a burning love for God; that the Holy Souls need our prayers as they cannot help themselves; that they are deeply concerned about our salvation and can pray on our behalf.
She adds that the best way to help the Holy Souls, both this Sunday and in the future, is to offer “Gregorian Masses” for them. This is a series of 30 Masses celebrated on 30 consecutive days for the repose of the soul of one departed person. The practice was first popularised by Pope St Gregory the Great and the Masses can be arranged by the Pious Union of St Joseph; requests and donations can be made at PiousUnionofStJoseph.org.
Susan regards prayers for the Holy Souls as a duty, a power and a privilege. She sees purgatory as where God “is preparing His unprepared children to be with Him face to face for all eternity”. It is much more about God’s love and mercy than about punishment, she stresses. The 365 reflections in her book, for every day of the year, not only include the relevant extracts from St Faustina’s Diaries – familiar to those making the Divine Mercy Novena that will conclude this Sunday – but from a variety of other writers.
For instance, there is CS Lewis, a great Christian apologist although not a Catholic, who writes: “Of course I pray for the dead … I believe in purgatory. Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they?” There is Venerable Archbishop Fulton J Sheen, famous American broadcaster and evangelist, explaining: “Three possible states await a soul after death: a state of perfect Love without suffering which is heaven; a state of suffering without Love which is hell; and a state of Love with suffering which is purgatory.” What could be clearer?
The extracts include (typically) dire warnings from the Curé of Ars; John Henry Newman’s practical prescription for perfection, “If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect…”, which makes holiness seem entirely accessible to all who desire it; the speech of the Ghost in Hamlet, lamenting that he was murdered before he could confess his sins (which is arguably proof of Shakespeare’s secret Catholic faith) and Padre Pio pleading that we must “pray unceasingly. We must empty purgatory!” Here you will read St Thomas More’s reply to Protestant attacks against Masses for the dead, as well as many other writings of the saints.
Living in an age when the notion of life after death is scoffed at and rejected, it is good to remember the great consoling truth of our Faith: that death does not have, as St Paul incomparably puts it, the “sting” of extinction; that each one of us will meet Christ when we die; and that we can help the Holy Souls after death by our prayers, just as they in their gratitude long to help us here below. For those who have not yet considered devotion to the Holy Souls, I would suggest they read Susan Tassone’s insightful and informative book.