Anyone who has read of the life of St. Padre Pio has undoubtedly learned of his many interactions with the holy souls. One of these tales involves St. Pio praying alone in the friary and being surprised at the sudden appearance of a man, despite locked doors.
Pio asked him who he was, and the man responded, “I am Pietro Di Mauro, son of Nicola, nicknamed Precoco. I died in this friary on the 18th of September, 1908, in cell number four when it was still a poorhouse.”
The man went on to explain that he had fallen asleep with a lighted cigar, which ignited the mattress and had died. He told Padre Pio he was still in purgatory and needed one Holy Mass to be freed.
“God permitted that I come and ask you for help,” the man explained, and Pio assured him that he would. Padre Pio conducted an investigation and discovered that a man of the same name had died on that day in 1908. As promised, he celebrated a Mass for the repose of the man’s soul.
Pio once said, “As many souls of the dead come up this road (to the monastery) as that of the souls of the living.” The sainted Capuchin was known for interacting with them and interceding for them often.
As we observe the feast day of All Souls on November 2, we are reminded of the spiritual connection that remains among the faithful even after death, and of our duty and obligation to continue to intercede for our loved ones who have died by offering prayers and requesting the celebration of Holy Mass for them.
As Catholics, we believe that the departed who are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins and worldly attachments, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, do not access the Beatific Vision until such atonement is accomplished. The doctrine of purgatory is one that is frequently disputed and misunderstood by non-Catholics, and was called into question during the pontificate of Pope Leo X in response to the selling of indulgences.
Following Pope Leo’s excommunication of Martin Luther with the papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificem and the Protestant reformation, the popular understanding of purgatory was often distorted. Rather than being understood as a gift to the departed in preparation for eternity, many portrayed it as the buying and selling of God’s mercy.
Luther came to reject purgatory completely, stating in his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, “Purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil. For it conflicts with the chief article (which teaches) that only Christ, and not the works of men, are to help (set free) souls. Not to mention the fact that nothing has been (divinely) commanded or enjoined upon us concerning the dead.”
The Gospel of Matthew, however, reminds us, “Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” (Mt 5:26) The scriptural roots of purgatory are well-known to cradle Catholics, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: “All who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).
Life is Changed, Not Taken Away
When I was in college, my father was on a waiting list for a lung transplant; he was only 49. He had been diagnosed the previous year with the same disease that claimed his father’s life years before: pulmonary fibrosis. We had no idea when “the call” for a new lung would come, but the entire family was in a tumultuous holding phase while we waited for him to be matched with a possible donor.
Upon returning from a softball tournament one weekend, I was heading back to my dorm and stopped in the middle of the street. I remember sensing very clearly that my deceased grandfather was standing in front of me and said to me, “You need to go home.”
So, I did. My parents hadn’t expected me to make the 2.5 hour drive home unplanned; I never told them why I had come. That night, at exactly midnight, Vanderbilt University called with the news that they had a lung for my dad and we were on our way. The whole experience was surreal. If I had not been home with my parents I would have not been able to see Dad before his transplant. To this day, I cannot fully explain it.
My father lived for a time after his transplant and was able to see me get married. He was in constant pain by that time and needed oxygen all the time. He was able to stand just briefly at my wedding reception, long enough to dance with me, although he could barely breathe.
My father gave of himself until he could give no more. He died that Halloween and was buried the day after All Souls’ Day. To say that he was my hero (and a hero to others as well) would be a mild understatement. I don’t remember him complaining about his illness once; he was utterly selfless and suffered with a smile on his face.
Years later, I found a prayer card from my grandfather’s funeral in 1974. On the front was an illustration of an oil lamp with the phrase: “Life is Changed, not Taken Away.” At that moment, I felt a tangible sense of comfort when I remembered that this man, who died a year before I was born, had come to me spiritually years later to help me prepare for my father’s lung transplant.
They are never truly gone from us.
On the feast of All Souls’ Day in 2022, Pope Francis offered Mass for the repose of the souls of more than 150 deceased bishops and cardinals who had died in the previous year. He recalled the words in the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25: 35-36).
Francis said that these words help us prepare for death and the final judgment, and that “the best careers, the greatest achievements, the most prestigious titles and awards, the accumulated wealth and earthly gains, all will vanish in an instant, everything.”
The Holy Father said that All Souls’ Day is a good occasion to ask “if our desires have anything to do with heaven.”
I began thinking of eternal life at the young age of 22, because I wanted more than anything to be reunited with my father one day. I have felt his presence so strongly over the years and have never stopped offering prayers and Masses for him.
It is not difficult to believe in the Communion of Saints when you have experienced it firsthand. May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace, and may we never forget that as part of the Church Militant here on earth, we are called to pray for our deceased and remember the Church Suffering, knowing that we are all bound spiritually via the Communion of Saints, even after death.