"Few things are as immediate, as human and as widespread—at all times and in all cultures—as prayer for one's own departed loved ones...it is a far too immediate urge to be suppressed, a most beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death. The happiness or unhappiness of a person dear to me, who has now crossed to the other shore, depends in part on whether I remember or forget him; he does not stop needing my love."
The words of Pope Benedict XVI noted above are apropos during November, which has by long tradition been dedicated to prayer for the faithful departed. This practice is founded upon Scripture and the Church's doctrine concerning the "communion of saints." This teaching affirms that there exists a union, a fellowship among all souls in whom dwells the Holy Spirit. This union includes ourselves, the Saints in heaven, and the souls in Purgatory. In practice this teaching means that all within this "communion" must be mindful of the needs of one another.
We will not find the term "Purgatory" in the Bible, but the Church's ancient belief in purgatory is deeply grounded in what the Scriptures explicitly teach about divine judgment, on the need for holiness to enter the vision of God, and on the reality of divine temporal punishment for sins which have been forgiven. Purgatory is implicitly found in the Second Book of Maccabees. Judas Maccabees, commander of the Jewish troops, ordered his soldiers to pray for those soldiers who died in battle so they might be released from their sins (2 Macc. 12:45). It is implicit in 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 1 Peter 1:7 that speak of the cleansing of those lesser imperfections that might yet stand between the soul and God. A soul would not want to appear before God tainted by any sins or imperfections.
The Church Fathers make many references not only to the existence of purgatory, but also to the fact that the faithful departed can be helped by the prayers of the living, especially by the Sacrifice of the Mass, almsgiving, and other acts of piety. Ancient inscriptions attest to the celebration of the Mass for the dead from the earliest centuries of the Church. The dogma of Purgatory was also affirmed by the Councils of Lyons (1274), Florence (1439), Trent (1545-1563), and Vatican II (1964).
While the Church affirms the existence of this state of purification, it has never defined its exact nature, whether this process is measured by the passage of time, or what kind of pain the souls there experience. Surely there exists the "pain of loss" felt for the soul's separation from God. Any pain is mitigated by the knowledge that they will attain heaven and experience everlasting joy and happiness. It might be said that the souls in purgatory "suffer joyfully" in the knowledge of the ecstasy to come. Our love for our brothers and sisters who have gone before us urges us to pray for all those who have died. May they soon hear the Lord's call: "Come, O my dear soul, to eternal repose in the arms of my goodness, which has prepared eternal delights for you."
Catechism of the Catholic Church: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994
Catholic Replies: J. Drummey: CR Pub, Norwood MA, 1995
Message for the Millennium of All Souls Day: John Paul II, L'Osservatore Romano, 7 Oct 1998
The Faith Explained: Leo Trese: Scepter Publishers, Princeton, 1995
The Ratzinger Report: Ignatius Press, S. Francisco, 1985
The Teaching of Christ: ed. Ronald Lawler, Our Sunday Visitor, 1976