Posted by: Yseult | July 15, 2008

Indulgences and praying for lost souls

There are moments in our life as believers where we feel the need to pray for others, living or dead. Praying for their suffering to be aleviated, their pains to be lessened and for them to find the force to turn all their hardness and whatever is holding them back over to our Saviour.

Non-believers or rather non-Christians find this a behaviour that borders onto the condescending. They think that in our wish to fortify them, we mean to judge them. As if “I pray for you …” is equal to “… because, Dear, you are so lost.” Of course in our minds and hearts as Catholics, there is such an equal sign, but because ultimately we all need all the prayers we can get. Believer or not, Christian or not. For outsiders there is a weird smell about someone who feels the need to offer up their time and heart to pray for someone else.

Be that as it may, as Catholics we have another group of people we feel the need to take care of: our lost ones. One particular friend who is now being called by the Lord to work in his sense and meaning, is particularly pressed to find a way to offer up testimony to turn her atheist family towards the word of our Lord, but above all is aching for a lost grandmother who died without ever receiving the faith. Her question to me and all of plurkville was whether she can offer up indulgences for her grandmother.

Indulgences per se can only ever be granted or achieved for living persons, because they presuppose an act of contrition and honnest repenting. This can from our side of the veil not be ascertained or seen, and thus the Church doesn’t pronounce itself. Inge’s question however opened a small discussion between me and J whether once dead, the time in Purgatory fixed, – while being dead – would hypothetically speaking be amendable or changeable by such an act of true repenting. Again the Church cannot issue an answer on such a question, simply because we cannot know. (Note the similarity between this question and the one about Limbo itself and particularly the controversy last year about unborn children or children per se. Limbus Doc to be consulted online here, and the article on that traces back the sources of the whole controversy to Augustine and Pelagius)

To help Catholics still in this world however to come to terms with their hearts and their need for closure and help, there are things that can be done, prayers that can be offered up to help and alleviate. And as always, as long as they do no harm, they can only do good in the eyes of our Lord.


The Rosary

A rosary as simple and short as it goes, as meditational as you want to put it, can always be asociated to a particular intention or prayed in the memory of a passed friend or family member. This can be done privately, but also within a parish where communal rosaries are usually prayed on Friday (in Europe). A small intention prayer can focus the whole community to such a wish for offer of the prayer.

The Sacrament of the Mass
In the Catholic Church, Masses can and are read for the memory of the deceased. Usually that happens 7 days and then 30 days after the date of the burial, and then one year later. This is usually done by the parish or in placed might be needed to be asked or reminded, but here in Europe it is still a very current thing to do. After that it is up to the family or friends to ask for prayer or mass intentions at a later date, but it is always possible and a good way to remember someone.


Pilgrimages to places where Saints worked and professed their faith can be a challenging voyage, and can in every way be associated with a particular memory for a person. Usually once the group has found together various prayer intentions are shared by the group and followed in every prayer silent or prayed together. I did a few pilgrimages when I needed centering and help with a particular prayer inent. Personally I have always had a problem with aksing things in prayer and pilgramages sort of have helped me bypass this awkward moment in which I ask the Lord for something he will give me anyway if it is indeed what I need. It can be a small walk, it can be a journey of weeks, whichever way, it is again the intention that counts.

Maybe some others can come up with more that I might have forgotten in the comments, but I hope that this helps to answer the answer that was asked. On a last note, one should never forget that the Lord above all and the One knows our heart and our intentions better than we consciously might and he knows of our pain for people that are dear to us, but do not necessarily share our belief. No prayer is lost, neither in time nor space.

Further reading:
– Very extensive article on Catholic Encyclopedia the nature of Indulgences with nice details in certain Medieval Controversy concerning Wycliff
– Pilgrimages: Catholic Encyclopedia, Documents of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People on Tourism, Pilgrimages and Shrines, and the final document of a Congress on “Ecumenism of Holiness – Pilgrimage at the Beginning of the Third Millenium
– Rosary: The Vatican Site on the Rosary (with Encyclics, official documents and meditations)


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