“And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
When I was growing up my family would often add this familiar prayer of the Church to our grace before meals. We began doing it one November – in recognition of All Souls Day and a month dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory – and it soon became a family habit that we continued all year long. Now that I have a family of my own, my husband and I have adopted this little prayer for “all souls” during our family grace too, and we have discovered many others do the same.
It’s an amusing and distinctly Catholic dilemma to find yourself praying grace before meals with a mixed group of friends, and to wonder as you near the end, “Should we add the faithful departed prayer? Or maybe they don’t do that?” Or to pray before a meal in public and wonder if maybe it is putting on a little too much of a “show” to add the prayer for all souls at the end.
When we do leave off the extra prayer, though, I usually add it on my own, as I can’t help but imagine some poor soul in purgatory who’s been waiting in eternity for that prayer, who will suffer the disappointment of not receiving it.
This is the problem with praying for all souls. There are always more souls to pray for; it is never enough.
When I was a young girl growing up in a large Catholic family my mother instructed me in the practice of praying for, and offering up for, the “poor souls” of purgatory. These included the souls of relatives of ours who had died, but in my early days I knew very few of them personally. They were just names and faded photos to me.
But it didn’t matter if we knew the souls we prayed for or not. My mother also taught my siblings and me to pray for “forgotten souls,” those souls in purgatory who had no one else to pray for them. In fact, she told us that it would be a good idea, when some small sacrifice comes our way, to offer it up for “the most forgotten soul in purgatory,” so that a stranger in purgatory, one of God’s precious children, who was helpless and suffering, might enter heaven.
The image of a poor, suffering, forgotten soul in purgatory, without anyone to help him or her but me, deeply impressed my young heart. I took the responsibility seriously and looked for ways to say extra prayers and make extra sacrifices for this “most forgotten soul.” I especially liked to pray in this way because my prayers and sacrifices automatically applied to whomever needed it most. I didn’t need to figure that part out. God could handle it.
And yet still I stress sometimes when praying for the dead. Days will pass where I don’t remember to pray for my deceased mother-in-law by name, or I fail to pray for all those residents who died at the nursing home where I worked decades ago, or I neglect the souls of all of my husband’s non-Catholic extended family members. Or I drive by a cemetery and wonder how many there are in need of my prayers.
The sheer number of souls who are likely in purgatory and counting on our prayers, in addition to all those souls we never knew, who are lost and forgotten, and might have no one here on earth to pray for them but you and me, can be absolutely overwhelming.
How can we do it all? Can we ever pray enough prayers for the dead?
Even in my struggle, though, I know that this is a childish approach to the concept of prayer. God does not work like a gumball machine in the sky where you put your prayers in, twist the handle, and out pops your prize in the form of a “get out of purgatory free” card.
What if we happen to pray for the soul of someone who has died and is already in heaven? Are those prayers wasted?
Of course not. The truth about prayer, whether we are praying for “poor souls” or for friends and family here on earth, is that its purpose is to change us as much as it is to help those we pray for. Prayer is about learning to trust in a generous God. It’s about learning to lean on God’s grace. It’s about growing in love and connection to God and others. Prayer helps us to grow in the understanding that, even as we struggle to “do it all,” we don’t actually do any of it. God does.
The spiritual overwhelm we might experience in wanting to pray for souls, and feeling like it’s never enough, is similar to the kind of overwhelm we sometimes feel as parents. Can we ever pray enough for our children?
As a mother of five who also took in seven of her husband’s young siblings to care for, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton must certainly have had her own moments of spiritual overwhelm. But she knew the secret of God’s grace and generosity. She once wrote: “The greater my unworthiness, the more abundant His mercy.”
These words are a great consolation to those of us who want to love God and others, and yet feel weak in the face of a world that needs us. The more unworthy we are, the more God makes up for our lack.
Can we do enough? Can we pray enough? No. We can’t. We always fall short. And that’s where grace comes in.
November, which begins with its feast days of saints and souls, is the perfect time to reflect upon the great gift we have in the Communion of Saints. In the Communion of Saints, we are connected to those of us here on earth, those in heaven who can pray for us, and those in purgatory who need our prayers. What a gift to be connected to God and others. What a gift to know that even if our human efforts are never enough, we can participate in helping those we know and love, and even those we might never meet until we are together in heaven.
In our earthly works and prayers, we will all fall short, but the gaps leave room for God. And when we entrust ourselves, our loved ones, and all souls to his merciful love, he fills our gaps with grace.
This reflection was originally published in 2018
DANIELLE BEAN is the brand manager for CatholicMom.com and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest. Danielle is author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.