‘It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.’          (2 Maccabees 12:46)

‘Pray brothers for the Souls in Purgatory suffer unbearably.’ 

 (St Stanislaus Papczynski, Founder of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception of The Blessed Virgin Mary)


In 1960 when I was an 8-year-old altar boy in rural Ireland, a missionary priest came to our village to give a retreat. He was a tall imposing man with a stern face, dressed in a black flowing cassock. A huge pair of Rosary beads jangled from the thick brown belt tethered at his waist, as he strode down the aisle.

At the first night of the men’s Mission he climbed up the oak pulpit and slowly gazed around the church that was packed with men and boys, until there was complete silence. It was electrifying.

‘There are 500 men and boys in this chapel tonight’ he suddenly roared in a voice that made everyone jump, ‘and this time next year 10 of you here tonight will be dead and 5 of you will be in hell and the other 5 in purgatory.’ There was a collective gasp from the congregation at such a shocking opening line, but no one knew enough or had enough courage to challenge his awesome statistics! He went on to describe in great detail the sufferings of both places and after that Mass and homily, the queues to go to confession were enormous.

Up to then my mother had spoken softly to me and my brothers and sisters about praying for and ‘offering up’ little sacrifices for those who had died and not gone directly to heaven – the Holy Souls in Purgatory. She explained that these souls had died with some sins on their soul that weren’t deadly sins (sins that killed the soul) and that through God’s Mercy they were sure of getting to heaven but needed to undergo a period of having their souls cleansed so they could reach the perfection needed to be with God forever in Heaven. 

 I had said these prayers and done the offerings up in a desultory way but after that priest’s sermon I kept the Holy Souls much more in my mind and made lots of little offerings up especially like refusing a sweet when I really wanted one or not grabbing the biggest piece of apple tart at Sunday lunch. I thought these little sacrifices would help God to make up His mind about letting people out of Purgatory. I didn’t fully understand what I was doing but it felt good when my mother praised me and explained that God was taking note of my generosity and letting souls into heaven because of it.

After several years my interest waned as I got more involved with schoolwork and then university, particularly after the old traditional ceremonies of visiting a chapel and graveyard on All Souls Day (2nd November) and praying to release souls from Purgatory on that day

while praying for the Holy Souls and the Pope’s intentions,  became less popular.

For the next 20 years I never gave the Holy Souls a thought or prayer though I still occasionally offered up little things to them as it had become a habit – as my old Cavan granny said ’The disciplines of youth are the habits of old age!’

Twenty years later I was working in an African hospital when one evening there was a horrific accident just outside the village. A ‘mammy wagon’ packed with passengers and a van full of men returning from work collided and both vehicles caught fire and 14 people were burnt to death. I had to do a post-mortem on their charred bodies and sometime later when I was paid for doing that, I felt I could not touch that money and I gave it immediately to the local parish priest to have Masses said for all the dead. I don’t know why I did that but it seemed like the right thing to do.

Several years later when I was back working in my home place as the village GP, I was very upset by the sudden death of my great aunt Mary who I had always got on with really well. Mary was a daily Mass goer and said the Rosary every day as well as a litany of prayers afterwards. She was generous and humorous but her one fault was she liked to talk too much about what the neighbours were up to and not always in the most charitable way.

I went to her funeral but never got a Mass said for her or even said a prayer as I’d long since giving up thinking about the Holy Souls. Six months after Mary died I had an extremely vivid dream in which I saw Mary burning over a great fire, like a roasting pig on a spit. Her skin was bright red and she seemed in terrible pain. I woke with a shout and was so startled I couldn’t get back to sleep. I thought that Mary despite all her praying must have gone to hell and I found that shocking. After a day or two of feeling unsettled I put it out of my mind and never thought about it again for a long time. 

Several weeks later, out of the blue, a letter arrived at my surgery from a woman in New York that I had never heard of. She had enclosed a booklet with her letter called ‘Read Me or Rue it’. It was about Purgatory and written in 1936 by an Irish priest who lived in Portugal, Fr Paul O’Sullivan. I opened the book that evening thinking I’d flick through it but I was immediately captivated by the writing style and Fr O’Sullivan certainly knew how to tell a good story.

Read Me or Rue it has only 20 pages but it contains a lot of information about the Holy Souls and Purgatory that I’d never heard of before, particularly about how painful Purgatory can be and how souls can sometimes be there for a very long time, even hundreds of years! I read it from cover to cover several times and felt very strongly that this was a subject I wanted to know a lot more about. I was struck by how negligent I’d been to the Holy Souls especially my deceased relatives.

As the first page indicated…’It is very possible that some of our nearest and dearest ones are still suffering the excruciating pains of Purgatory and calling on us piteously for help and relief. Is it not dreadful that we are so hardened as not to think about them, that we are so cruel as to deliberately forget them?’ 

It went on to say…’As there is no hunger, no thirst, no poverty, no need, no suffering to compare with what the Souls in Purgatory endure, so there is no alms more deserving, none more pleasing to God, none more meritorious for us than the alms, the prayers, the Masses we give to the Holy Souls. Every alms we give to the poor we give to God. Therefore all we do for the Holy Souls, God accepts as done to Himself. It is as if we relieved or released Him from Purgatory. What a thought! How He will repay us!’

Fr O’Sullivan continued as he admonished his readers, ‘It is incomprehensible how some Catholics, even those who are otherwise devout, shamefully neglect the souls in Purgatory. It would almost seem that they do not believe in Purgatory. Certainly, their ideas on the subject are very hazy. Days and weeks and months pass without their having a Mass said for the Holy Souls. While they are enjoying themselves, the poor souls are suffering unutterable agonies on their beds of flame. What is the cause of this awful callousness? Ignorance, gross, inexplicable ignorance. They end up taking little or no care to avoid purgatory themselves.’

I was deeply affected by that booklet went to a Catholic bookshop the next day and bought 2 large books about Purgatory to learn more about it and to see what was the best way I could help the Holy Souls and make up for my negligences. Both books ‘Purgatory’ by Fr F X Shouppe SJ and ‘Charity for the Suffering Souls’ by Fr A Nageleisen were written 120 years ago and they were fascinating, telling numerous stories about Holy Souls appearing to people or coming in their dreams asking for help. Many of the great saints and Doctors of the Church were quoted usually to tell of the severity of Purgatory and the duration, where one hour in Purgatory can seem like 30 years on earth! At Fatima in 1917 when Lucia asked Our Lady about what had happened to an 18-year-old girl, Amelia, who had died recently in her village, she was told that Amelia has to stay in Purgatory until the end of the world before she will be released.

Several things fell into place after I read those books. The first realization was that many of us go to Purgatory after we die as few people die in a complete state of grace and have therefore to undergo different degrees of purification. I realised that Purgatory has many different levels and that the lower levels are just above Hell, the big difference being that the souls in the lowest levels of Purgatory are going to get out someday, whereas the damned souls in Hell are there forever.

I suspected that my aunt Mary was possibly in the lower part of Purgatory because of her uncharitable tongue and I began to get Masses said for her, enrolled here for Gregorian Masses (more about that later) and said many prayers. I never dreamt about her again!

I was annoyed with myself for having ignored the terrible sufferings of the Holy Souls for over 30 years and I decided to try to make up as best as I could by ordering hundreds of copies of Read Me or Rue it and other Purgatory leaflets and giving them out to as many people as I could. Fr O’Sullivan’s booklet pulls no punches about how painful and prolonged Purgatory can be and some people, especially the younger generations found it is too severe, but as St Padre Pio said to a man who told him he didn’t believe in Hell ‘You’ll believe in it when you get there!’

One priest heard about the booklets I was distributing and denounced them from the altar and several people told me crossly that they were too severe, though all the information in them is taken from great saints like St Alphonsus Liguori, St Augustine and St Teresa of Avilla, saints who would hardly be given to exaggeration. Purgatory is not a place for the faint hearted and as my wise old grandmother said ‘To be forewarned is to be forearmed.’ Or as I say, better to be scared now and do something about it rather than end up in Purgatory for a long stretch!

I gave out copies of Read Me or Rue it and at least 2 men I gave it to had the same reaction I had and were immediately captivated by it. One of them, an ex-professional boxer went out the next day and ordered 15,000 copies!

By helping the Holy Souls we can greatly reduce their time and suffering in Purgatory and allow them to get to the unending happiness of Heaven. This greatly pleases God and helps to shorten our own time in Purgatory and maybe even totally avoid it.

To quote the excellent book, ‘30 Days for the Holy Souls, Stories about Purgatory’…….’It is the common opinion of the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church, that those who fervently and perseveringly interest themselves for the souls in Purgatory will not be lost. O security to be desired!’

One of the ‘Big Four Doctors of the Church’ St Augustine said  ‘There is no more pious mission than that of praying for the dead and there is nothing more agreeable to God than the relief and deliverance of the faithful departed.’

St Alphonsus Liguori informs us that the Holy Souls can do nothing to help themselves and are totally dependent on us to help them, but they can obtain great graces for us and astounding favours and deliver us from evils of every kind. He added, ‘It is completely impossible to describe their unbounded gratitude to those who help them. Filled with an immense desire to repay the favours done to them, they pray for their benefactors with a fervour so great, so intense, so constant that God can refuse them nothing.’

St Leonard of Port Maurice pointed out something that we should all take note of when he wrote, ‘If you deliver one soul from Purgatory, you can say with confidence, heaven is mine!’ That, if nothing else, has to be a one huge reason for helping the Holy Souls – the prospect of undoubtably saving one’s own soul!

When we, by our prayers and Masses release a Holy Soul from Purgatory, the soul goes to heaven which causes tremendous rejoicing there among all the angels and saints. God and Our Lady and St Joseph are overjoyed and the soul itself is eternally in bliss and for ever grateful to the person who helped them to be released and prays for them with great zeal, particularly that they will obtain the grace of a happy death. So, what is stopping us from doing such wonderful work?

Sister Faustina of the Divine Mercy was taken to Purgatory by her Guardian Angel and she said, ‘In a moment I was in a misty place full of fire in which there was a great crowd of suffering souls. They were praying fervently, but to no avail, for themselves. ONLY WE CAN COME TO THEIR AID. The flames that were burning them did not touch me. When I asked what was their greatest suffering, they said with one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God. God told Sr Faustina, ‘My Mercy does not want this, but My Justice demands it.’ She saw Our Lady visiting the Souls in Purgatory, going among them, bringing them relief. The Souls called her ’Star of the Sea’.

By far the best way of helping the Holy Souls is by having Masses said for them. St Cyril of Alexandria assures us that ‘The relief afforded to the Holy Souls by one Mass is extraordinary!’ Any prayer, but especially the Mass, when offered for the Holy Souls is appreciated far more than a starving man would appreciate a banquet of delicious food. It exceeds our imagining.

 The Cure of Ars said, ‘One Mass gives God more praise and thanksgiving, makes more atonement for sins and pleads more eloquently than does the combined and eternal worship of all the souls in Heaven, on earth and in Purgatory.’ He added that the Mass is God making a sacrifice to man, whereas all our prayers and sacrifices, including martyrdom are only a man’s sacrifice to God. He compares all these human sacrifices to one Mass as being less significant than a single grain of sand compared to all the sand in the oceans.

St Anselm was credited with saying that a single Mass offered for oneself during life or a single Mass that one has attended may be worth more than a thousand celebrated for the same intention after death. One of the reasons for this could be that when a person attends a Mass or has a Mass said for themselves during life, some effort or sacrifice has been made either to go to the Mass or to provide the Mass offering. When we leave money for Masses to be said after our death, the sacrifice is considerably less as money is no longer of any use to us when we are dead. St Therese of Lisieux acknowledged that when she said, ‘God only wants our good intentions.’

This should not discourage us from praying as prayer and sacrifices are also extremely helpful for the Suffering Souls. Our Lady told Fr Cestac when she presented him with her prayer ’August Queen of Heaven’, a prayer to ward off demons, that it is essential for us to pray. ‘Prayer is a condition set by God in order to obtain graces.’

Other ways of helping the Holy Souls besides Masses include saying the Rosary, doing the Stations of the Cross, saying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, devotion to The Holy Face and its litany and Chaplet, reciting the De Profundis prayer and The Eternal Rest grant onto them O Lord prayer.

St Alphonsus Ligouri said that after Mass, the best means of helping the Holy Souls is to join The Rosary Confraternity, as members of that Confraternity benefit from the countless Rosaries said by the other members of the Confraternity throughout the world and they can offer all those Rosaries for the Holy Souls. You can join the Rosary Confraternity at either of the following addresses or on line – The Director of the Rosary Confraternity, St Dominic’s Priory, Southampton Rd, London, NW5 4 LB or The Confraternity of The Holy Rosary, The Rosary Centre, PO Box 3617, Portland, OR 97208, USA.

 Holy Water and Blessed Salt are very beneficial to the Holy Souls and should be sprinkled over graves and in Chapels where many invisible souls pray in total silence and reverence to God before the Tabernacle according to St Padre Pio and other saints. It is thought that each Chapel that contains the Blessed Sacrament is full of Holy Souls worshipping there. As little as one drop of Holy Water sprinkled over a grave or a church pew can free a soul who is very close to Heaven.

When sprinkling the Holy Water say, ‘O God in Your Mercy multiply these drops of Holy Water into as many drops of Holy Water as there are Holy Souls in Purgatory and allow them not to feel the pain of Purgatory as long as the moisture of Holy Water remains.’ 

There are several saints associated with the Holy Souls especially Our Lady and St Joseph who is known as ‘the terror of demons’. Both are also associated helping us to have a happy death and we should pray to them every day for that. St Nicholas of Tolentino is the Patron Saint of Holy Souls and St John Massias, who was very devoted to the Holy Souls’ was said to have released over a million Souls from Purgatory. St John did this mainly by repeatedly saying the Rosary as did St Padre Pio who said up to 35 Rosaries a day.

 St Gertrude is another patron of the Holy Souls who released 1.3 million Holy Souls from Purgatory.  Her prayer is said to release 1000 souls every time it is spoken and that prayer is …’Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with all the Masses said throughout the world today for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, for those in my own home and those within my own family. Amen.’

We can of course offer up all our pains and sufferings for the Holy Souls and say frequent short, indulged prayers throughout the day like ’Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in Thee’ or just repeat the word ‘Jesus’ for their intentions.

There are 2 other ways of helping the Holy Souls that give them extraordinary relief though both require a heroic level of generosity!

The first is making The Heroic Act of Charity on behalf of the souls in Purgatory and this consists in voluntarily offering all our works of satisfaction done in this life, as well as all the prayers, Masses and sacrifices that will be offered for us after our death (suffrages). By agreeing to this the person places all these works and prayers in the hands of the Blessed Virgin to distribute as she sees best to the Holy Souls.

The Heroic Act does not prevent us from praying for ourselves or others, nor for letting others share in our good works. It is not a vow and does not bind under sin and can be revoked at any time. There are different plenary and partial indulgences attached to the Heroic Act that the reader can look up.

The second very generous thing is to have Gregorian Masses offered up for a deceased person. These Masses were introduced by St Gregory The Great for a former monk of his called Justus, who had sinned against poverty by keeping 3 gold coins he was given and hiding them under his pillow and when this was discovered, he was severely punished. After he died St Gregory had pity on him and arranged for a Mass a day to be said for him daily for 30 days. At the end of the 30 days Justus appeared to St Gregory splendidly happy and told him he was on his way to Heaven forever. It is believed that if Gregorian Masses are said for a person in Purgatory then that person is released from Purgatory at the end of the 30 daily Masses. 

Some people are not in a financial position to get Masses said regularly and are not able to attend Mass regularly either. A way they can get regular Masses said for their deceased relatives is to join a Perpetual Mass Association where they pay a once of payment of £5-10 and their deceased relative then has Masses said for them on a daily basis by the Congregation of Priests that is in charge of that particular Perpetual Mass Association. Details about addresses of Gregorian Masses and Perpetual Mass Associations can be found at perpetualmasses.org.  There are also Reserved Gregorian Masses, where a person can pay a stipend before they die to make sure Gregorian Masses are said for them after death and that is also explained on the website.

Don’t forget that God is extraordinarily generous to those in Purgatory who helped the Holy Souls while they were alive and He regularly goes to Purgatory with his angels and orders them to pick out such generous souls and take them straight to Heaven.

The Holy Souls have helped myself and others I know to an enormous degree and the following are 3 short stories about that.

A wealthy friend of mine called Martin, who unlike many wealthy people, is extremely generous to the poor and the Holy Souls in particular, phoned me one Sunday morning 3 years ago. He spoke so slowly and painfully I could barely hear him.

‘Owen,’ he whispered ‘ I’m in a terrible state and in hospital since Friday. The surgeons said they had to operate on me but I was too ill and might die if they did and they have left me to see will I be fit for an operation after a weekend on intravenous feeding. I want you to get 100 Masses said for the Holy Souls and I’ll fix you up later.’

I immediately sent of the request to The Little Way Association in London and called to see Martin on Tuesday expecting to find him seriously ill. He was sitting beside his bed waiting for his wife to come and bring him home. He said that shortly after talking to me about the Holy Soul’s Masses he began to feel better and when the doctors came to see him on Monday they couldn’t believe how well he was. They told him that in normal circumstances they would have discharged someone as well as he was, but they couldn’t understand how he had recovered so quickly and would have to keep an eye on him for 24 hours to make sure he didn’t relapse. Two of the doctors said that it was the nearest thing to a miracle they had ever seen!

Last year I was very worried about one of my daughters who works in the Middle East. She phoned me to say that she had developed a serious medical condition that required extensive surgery. I immediately sent off a request for Masses to be said for the Holy Souls on my daughter’s behalf.

Two days later a friend of mine I hadn’t heard from in many years phoned. He asked how my children were getting on and when I told him about my daughter’s condition, he said he had a colleague who was an expert in that field and he would get him to phone my daughter and sort things out, which is exactly what happened! 

One of my favourite stories regarding the Holy Souls is about something that happened to my daughter Zelie, who was named after St Theresa of Lisieux’s mother, Zelie Martin.

In 2004 I moved to France for a year with my family to work in a hospital in a hilly town in Normandy. Most evenings I’d walk round the town with my wife and younger children. One November evening Zelie, who was 7 years old, had a bad fall and bruised her forehead on the pavement.  I’d often spoken to Zelie about the Holy Souls and offering things up for them. When she started to scream in pain I said. ‘Zelie, if you stop crying before I count to 10 and offer it up for the Holy Souls, I will get you something really nice.’ 

I knew Zelie was a tough little girl, having to survive with 5 older brothers, and at the count of 9 she abruptly stopped crying to my relief and delight.

I asked Zelie what she would like me to get her for being so brave – a pizza or a milk shake or a big bar of chocolate or all three?

‘No, no, no, none of those things. I don’t want any of them. I want the Holy Souls to make it snow at Christmas!’ 

I told her I didn’t know if I could promise her that and she said, ‘Well, you told me you’d get me something really good for being so brave for the Holy Souls offering up all that pain and I did, so I want them to make it snow.’

‘Ok, Ok Zelie, I’ll see what I can do to get that sorted out for you.’ as I muttered under my breath. ‘Holy Souls, you really need to get onto this case!’ Then I remembered that St Therese had once prayed for snow to fall at Christmas as she loved snow and on Christmas Day, it fell all over her convent but nowhere else in Lisieux.

Christmas Eve arrived and there was no sign of snow. Zelie kept looking at me expectantly and I kept praying to the Holy Souls! Midnight Mass was at 9pm in the beautiful old church of Notre Dame perched on the highest hill in the town and surrounded by a cobble stoned plaza and outdoor cafes whose light twinkled in the darkness.

I called the children for midnight Mass and as they clambered into the 12-seater Landrover it began to snow. It snowed and snowed and by the time we reached the chapel the snow was lying thick on the ground, creating a fairy tale scene.

One and a half hours later when the beautiful sung Midnight Mass was over, we were filing out of the chapel into a world full of snow. It was nearly a foot deep and still falling so heavily I began to be concerned about getting home.

When we reached home, all the children, especially the delighted Zelie ran around the garden and empty streets having snowball fights and building snowmen until well into the small hours of that Christmas morning. 

It snowed all through that night and on and off for the next two weeks. Schools had to be closed as the roads were impassable. Our elderly neighbour said that in his 82 years he had never seen snow like it before. All the children in the town including ours had a wonderful time building sledges and sliding down all the biggest hills in that hilly town. It was a magical time.

After two weeks I had to go to a neighbouring town to pick up something and I drove with some difficulty through the snow for the first mile of the journey. After that, the snow suddenly disappeared and there was no snow for the next twenty miles of my journey.  Snow still fell in our town for two more weeks to the delight of all the children. 


Nobody will ever convince me otherwise than that Zelie’s heroic little offering brought huge joy to the Holy souls but also to all the young people of that French town.


One final and important point I’d like to mention, is that most people when they want to obtain a favour from God through the intercession of his Mother, say something along the lines of ‘If this favour is granted I will make such and such an offering or give such and such an alms.’ It is far better to do what my friend Martin did and give before hand what we had intended to give afterwards in thanksgiving. By doing that we show our confidence in God and His Mother that they will grant our petition. We also follow the Gospel which says, ‘Give and it shall be given to you’.

 As St John Bosco said ‘God did not say ‘Promise to give and you shall receive. He said, ‘Give first and you shall receive!’


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