We all know and practice that noble act of charity by praying for the souls in purgatory. We pray that the ‘uncleanness or rust on the soul’ (as St. Catherine of Genoa calls it) may be burned away by the fire of God’s love in order to free the soul, and also to strengthen her, for the Vision of God. This spiritual work of mercy is what the Church calls a ‘heroic act of charity’. Most Catholics do pray, much and earnestly, for the dead. But if they were asked whether they ever pray for the dying, many I am sure would be taken aback and answer, "Why so? I never thought of it." How many remember to pray for the dying? I really wonder. It is not my intention to minimize the need of praying for the dead, but I think we do not sufficiently appreciate the even greater need of praying for the dying.
It is a matter of faith that all the souls in purgatory will go to heaven sooner or later. However long they may have to stay in purgatory (properly speaking the soul is no longer in time), they will have the whole eternity to enjoy heaven. Their eternal destiny is quite safe, and we may be glad that they are there after all. It is true that they are suffering very much, but probably greater than all their suffering is the joy of knowing for certain that they are saved from hell, that they cannot offend God anymore, that heaven is waiting for them. They recognize the justice of their punishment and are willing to suffer till they are pure as snow and worthy of the divine embrace.
The condition of the dying is very different. Their eternal fate still hangs in the balance. Our prayers can save them from hell. Here it is not merely a question of shortening or mitigating a soul's purgatory; the very salvation of these souls is at stake. It is a question of life or death, of receiving the fruits of the redemption or being lost forever. Surely, if we have a spark of zeal, this devotion must appeal to us. Every day, every hour, so many thousands of men are about to die, and their eternal destiny is about to be sealed forever, irrevocably. Is it not more important to save a soul from hell than from purgatory? Will it not be most pleasing to God if thanks to our prayer a soul goes to heaven which otherwise might have been lost?
Consider what happens when you offer a Mass or a rosary, for a soul in purgatory or for a man about to die. In the former case, the effect will be to shorten or lighten the sufferings of this or another soul, according to God's holy will. This, no doubt is an excellent act of charity.
If the prayer is offered for a dying man, let us first suppose that man is in a state of grace, Your Prayer will obtain for him further graces. With these graces he will make meritorious acts which will purify his soul and increase his degree of charity. Consequently, when he dies, he will have both a lighter purgatory and a higher degree of glory in heaven. While if you pray for that very soul only after death you can only shorten his purgatory, without obtaining any further grace for him and making him go higher in heaven.
Now, suppose that man about to die is not in a state of grace. Your prayers may obtain for him the grace of making a good confession or at least an act of perfect contrition: you will have saved him. Once this man has died without recovering the state of grace, your prayers and Masses for his soul are of no avail, for he is lost forever, irremediably. (The argument makes it clear that prayer for the dying can have certain precious effect which prayer for the dead cannot have, though these effects are not obtained infallibly. – For the same reason it is better to have Masses said for oneself while still alive, rather than leave them all to be said after one’s death.)
I think that a soul in purgatory will reason like this: "It is hard to be here, and I am thankful to those who by their prayers relieve my suffering. But if those same prayers can save a soul from hell, leave me to suffer as I deserve, without pity, and save souls from eternal damnation". First attend to the man about to fall into a precipice from which there is no rescue, and then turn to the man who only fainted on the road. But comparisons will always be inadequate.
It is estimated that more than 1,50,000 people die every day. That makes 6,316 per hour, 105 per minute. One day you will be among them. At the moment the whole world is crippled with the deadly Coronavirus, nearly 27,000 have died in 8 weeks. It is said, every three minutes someone dies of this illness in Italy alone... nearly all of them meeting with a sudden death, many of them perhaps badly prepared to face their Judge and the situation is worsened by the fact the confessionals are closed and curfew is in place that restricts the movements of priests. What do they have left?... your prayers can help them to escape damnation, or to mitigate their purgatory and to acquire a more glorious heaven.
By all means pray for the dead. But do not forget that it is even more important to pray for the dying, for the many who die this day, this hour, this minute.
Here is an indulgenced prayer for those who are dying:
O MOST MERCIFUL JESUS, lover of souls, I beseech Thee, by the agony of Thy most Sacred Heart, and by the sorrows of Thine Immaculate Mother, wash clean in the Thy Blood the sinners of the whole world who are to die this day.
Remember most especially the soul I spiritually adopt with the intention of entrusting him or her to Thy Shepherd's care: I beseech Thee for the grace to move this sinner, who is in danger of going to Hell, to repent. I ask this because of my trust in Thy great mercy.
If it should please Thy Majesty to send me a suffering this day in exchange for the grace I ask for this soul, then, it, too, shall please me very much, and I thank Thee, Most Sweet Jesus, Shepherd and Lover of Souls; I thank Thee for this opportunity to give mercy in thanksgiving for all the mercies Thou hast shown me. Amen.
Heart of Jesus, once in agony, have mercy on the dying.
Fr. Therasian Xavier