Mother Francis Raphael Drane, in her celebrated book The Spirit of the Dominican Order Illustrated from the Lives of its Saints, begins the chapter on Dominican devotion to the Souls in Purgatory as such:
There is an Italian proverb which says, “Be a Dominican when you die,” referring partly perhaps to the wonderfully happy deaths which seem to be among the special privileges of the Order, and partly to the great number of prayers for the faithful departed and in particular for its own members, which its constitutions prescribe. But, besides these obligations of our Rule, it is evident by the multitude of voluntary exercises undertaken by so many of our religious for the relief of the suffering souls in purgatory that a great tenderness in their regard formed a decided part of the spirit of their devotion. The pains of that mysterious region have been laid open to the eyes of many among them, not in the visions of fantastic imagination… but to the eye of their faith and understanding.
“Be a Dominican when you die.”— An Italian Proverb
The souls in purgatory are dependent on others, and the friendship of the living who are in a state of grace are the best hope of the faithful departed. As St Thomas teaches in his Catechetical Instructions,
Christ descended into hell in order to deliver His own; and so we should go down there to rescue our own. They cannot help themselves. Therefore, let us deliver those who are in purgatory. He would be very hard-hearted who does not come to the aid of a relative who is detained in an earthly prison; but much more cruel is he who will not assist a friend who is in purgatory, for there is no comparison between the pains of this world and of that.
Faith tells us that the liberation of the Church Penitent from their sufferings is in our hands, through prayer. These poor suffering souls cannot pray for themselves or merit any increase in charity, but are instead entirely subject to the purifying fire of God. “They are not in a condition to pray, but rather in a condition that requires us to pray for them” (ST II-II, 83, 12). Hence they are not just “holy” souls simply awaiting the vision of God in Heaven, but also the “poor” souls.
For the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is a society encompassing Heaven and Earth: the Church Triumphant and the Church Penitent in Purgatory, together with the Militant Church on earth, are united together in the Communion of Saints. Saint Thomas thus continues: we ought to assist the souls in purgatory in three ways “as St. Augustine tells us, viz., through Masses, prayers, and almsgiving. St. Gregory adds a fourth, that is, fasting. All this is not so amazing, for even in this world a friend can pay a debt for his friend; but this applies only to those who are in purgatory.”
Our Dominican prayer book, in its introduction to the section which contains the Office of the Dead and the Penitential Psalms, reminds us that this devotion by which we pray for the souls in purgatory is one particularly dear to the Order. St Dominic himself led the way and gave the example, scourging himself each night for the relief of the holy souls. Many other saints of our Order – St Louis Bertrand, St Catherine of Siena, St Catherine de Ricci, Bl John Dominic, to name a few – prayed continuously and practiced severe penances for the suffering souls.
In the priories of the Dominican Order, a Conventual Mass for the Dead followed by the Libera Procession is offered every week of the year. The complete Office of the Dead is also recited weekly, with this obligation enjoined upon all Friars, even those who are normally exempt from the choral Office due to other duties. During the month of November, each priest must say three Masses for the Holy Souls, and each cleric must recite the entire psalter between the Feast of St Dionysius and Advent.
For the Sisters here in Wanganui, the first eight days of November mean cemetery visits, a Libera Procession, and special prayers recited for the dead. Each Sister contributes a list of dearly departed to be put in a box, which is kept on the altar throughout the entire month. This is in addition to the De Profundis which is recited every day before the main meal and at our weekly Chapter, and the four anniversaries of the Order which is piously celebrated in February (for our deceased parents), July (those buried in our cemeteries), September (deceased benefactors) and November (all deceased Dominican brothers and sisters). And in the evenings, after Compline, as the Grand Silence bell tolls slowly for the duration of a De Profundis, death is called to mind, and the hope of eternal rest springs in the hearts of each Sister as the sun sinks slowly in the distance over the West.
This round continues, day by day, year after year. We never cease repeating these prayers and these Masses.
As the renowned Dominican orator Fr Jacques-Marie Louis Monsabre says, “nothing is more conformable to reason than the doctrine of the Church on purgatory, and nothing is more consoling for the heart.” The privation of God is doubtlessly a very great suffering, but it is sweetened and consoled by the assured hope of once possessing Him. From this hope there arises an incredible joy, which grows in measure as the soul approaches the end of its exile.