For the last twenty years, I have lived within walking distance of a cemetery. With headstones dating back to the 18th century, this cemetery is one of the most beautiful—and hallowed—places I have ever been.
As I walk the cemetery’s paths several times a week, I often pass by other people who are regulars there, too. They are drawn, as I am, to the peace and solace of this sanctuary. There is a holiness, a quiet sanctity, that resides inside a cemetery’s gates. It is more than a pretty place; it is a sacred place.
Over the past few years, one of the people I often saw in the cemetery was a man who also lived nearby. I didn’t know him well, but we would say hello as we passed each other on the path.
Then, earlier this year, I heard the sad news that this man had died suddenly. He was now buried in the same beloved cemetery where I had seen him walking so many times before.
One of the fruits of spending so much time in the cemetery is that it helps me to keep death—and eternity—at the forefront of my mind. Yet no matter how much I reflect on death, somehow it still comes as a shock when it happens. I had seen this man alive, breathing, walking here along these very paths. Now, in the exact same place, I would pass by his grave.
I thought about his last moments. He had died suddenly, with no warning: Was he ready? What was the state of his soul?
I wished I could have known earlier, so that I could have prayed a Divine Mercy chaplet for him as he neared death. But then I remembered Padre Pio’s reassurance that, since God is outside of time, our prayers aren’t confined by the passing of time.
“For the Lord, …everything is an eternal present,” Padre Pio said. “Those prayers had already been taken into account so that even now I can pray for the happy death of my great-grandfather!”
With this thought, I realized that it wasn’t too late for me to pray for this man at the hour of his death. I could pray now, and God would apply those prayers retroactively.
Then I realized that there was something else I could do for the soul of this man: I could ask my friends to pray. In fact, visiting the cemetery reminded me that there was a whole spiritual army ready to pray, if only I asked—the Army of the Holy Souls.
The Army of the Holy Souls
Over the years, the graves in the cemetery have become far more than stone markers to me. The souls whose bodies are buried there have become dear friends. Ours is a friendship rooted in mutual prayer. I pray for their souls—and then I ask them to intercede for me.
The Catechism (958) says that our prayer for the dead “is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” I cling to this promise like a lifeline. Our prayer for these souls is like a key that opens to door to their prayers for us. When we pray for them, it’s as if a spiritual army has assembled before us, ready and waiting to pray for anything we ask.
As I thought about the soul of the man who had died, I was consoled to know that if I first turned the key and opened the door by praying for the dead—especially for those whose bodies rested in the cemetery where this man had walked and was now buried—then these dear souls would, in turn, intercede for him to rest in peace.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that God placed him in my path, and theirs, in the very cemetery where the holy ground would become his tomb. These fingerprints of divine providence are a sign of hope that God will hear our prayers and bring this man’s soul into the light of eternal joy.
Plenary Indulgences in November
There is a sacredness that surrounds a tomb. The place where the body is laid to rest is holy. When the soul has left the body, the tomb remains as a physical sign that this person, made in the image and likeness of God, once lived and breathed on this earth. Each headstone reminds us, too, that the resurrection of the body is still to come.
In His infinite goodness, God gives us a special gift to give to the holy souls each year in the presence of these tombs. In early November, the faithful can obtain plenary indulgences for the souls in purgatory by visiting a cemetery and praying there for the dead. In order to obtain the indulgence, a Catholic in the state of grace must have the intention to obtain it and fulfill the following conditions:
- From Nov. 1-8, visit a cemetery and pray there for the dead, even if only mentally
- Make a sacramental confession (a single confession, within about 20 days before or after, will suffice for all the indulgences a person obtains within that time period)
- Receive Holy Communion (once for each indulgence obtained)
- Recite at least one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the Holy Father
- Be free from attachment to all sin, including venial
One plenary indulgence can be obtained each day. The indulgence is partial if the conditions are partially fulfilled.
An indulgence for the souls in purgatory is also available on Nov. 2, for those who visit a church or oratory and recite an Our Father and Creed.
A note about the last condition: Sometimes people wonder whether it is possible for them to be completely detached from venial sin. I believe the answer to this is found in Mark 10, when Jesus tells his disciples how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God, and they wonder who then can be saved.
“For human beings it is impossible, but not for God,” Jesus tells them. “All things are possible for God.”
Even if it would be impossible for us to be completely detached from sin, it is not impossible for God. As Matthew 7 reminds us, “Ask, and it will be given you;” for our Father in heaven gives “good things to those who ask him.” Let’s ask Him, then, for the grace to be detached from all sin. My friend Suzie suggests adding this little prayer to the prayers for the indulgence: Dear Holy Spirit, if I am not detached from all sin, please make me detached now, so that I may gain this plenary indulgence that my Mother, the Church, offers to me, Her child.
God is on our side. He wants us to be able to obtain this indulgence as an act of charity for the souls in purgatory, and He will help us fulfill the conditions if we only ask.
Churchyard Prayer of St. John XXIII
Hail, all you faithful souls whose bodies rest here and elsewhere in dust; may Our Lord Jesus Christ, who redeemed you and us with His most precious Blood, vouchsafe to release you from your pains to unite you to the hosts of the angels; and there do you be mindful of us and suppliantly pray for us that we may join your company and be crowned along with you in heaven. Amen.