'How Do You Bring Up the Subject of Death?'
How are we to teach children to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory? Father Andy Davy, MIC, who serves as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Plano, Illinois, and who has worked in youth ministry for the past 20 years, offers suggestions to help you get your kids involved.
By Fr. Andy Davy, MIC (Nov. 12, 2015)
The first question everyone asks when it comes to teaching young children about the Holy Souls in Purgatory is "How do you bring up the subject of death?" Well, kids are curious creatures. They will probably ask you about death long before you are ready for the question.
One of the ways the subject of death arises (and I can remember this being the case with my youngest brother) is the death of a pet. You don't have to have the whole "is my fish in Heaven" talk, but it at least prompts the question about the reality of death, so kids start to think about it. Don't be worried that you'll traumatize kids by talking about death. By and large, so long as we're honest with them, kids are good at coping with death and grief. We need to allow them to work through their emotions. Chances are they will do so way more quickly than most adults.
The key in helping them to understand death is to really focus on our Lord's love, our Lord's mercy, and the fact that we were actually made for Heaven. You can remind the child that Heaven is where we are going to be the happiest. It gives children hope. As a parish priest, I remind the children that — difficult as it may be for them to imagine — our Lord loves the person who died even more than we do.
Once the conversation about death has started, it can be a great opportunity to talk to them about prayer and sacrifices. The Church teaches that the Holy Souls in Purgatory cannot pray for themselves. In Purgatory, where Divine Justice purifies souls, the prayers and sacrifices of the living — ours and our children's — can extinguish our loved ones' burning pain of waiting to be united with God in eternity.
You can start by teaching them that one of the greatest act of love you can do for someone who has died is to pray for them. Start with the basics — these children loved their grandma (or whoever has passed away). Focus their attention on their love for that person. Explain that this love doesn't end with death. Explain that, when we are praying for our loved ones, we are keeping that connection. Encourage them to speak in prayer to their deceased loved one, saying something like: "Grandma, I love you so much that I'm going to be thinking about you and praying for you."
Next, since Purgatory can be a rather abstract concept for many younger children to grasp, I like to give them an analogy they can understand. My favorite is from writer Mark Hart. He says, "Have you ever tried to put a wrinkled dollar bill into a soda machine? You try your best to straighten it out but the machine simply can't receive it in its wrinkled, tattered state. But if you put in a crisp, new bill, the machine takes it no problem. Purgatory is where all the 'wrinkles' are purged and 'ironed out.' Remember, the wrinkled dollar is not worth less than the new one; it just needs some help. Put simply, Purgatory means you'll get to Heaven some day, but that you have a few things God has to 'iron out' first."
Then, I like to encourage children to make small sacrifices for their loved ones who have died, such as saying, "I won't eat that second cookie, and will instead offer it for Grandma who has passed away."
When I bring kids into Adoration (and they can be kindergarteners or pre-school age), I have them imagine that particular person who has died is cradled in their hands. Then I have them lift their hands up to the image of Jesus as they offer that person to the Lord. I have had kids tell me afterwards that they could feel the Lord telling them, "Don't worry" — he is taking care of this person.
I also like to talk to the kids about the importance of going to their heart. You can have them imagine their hearts are like a house where Jesus comes to stay. In that place, they can talk to Jesus about how sad they are that Grandma has died. They can allow Jesus to talk back to them. Have them think about what Jesus would say. Have them use their gift of imagination in which the Lord can also touch and anoint them. I've heard the children come up with some beautiful answers.
What are some prayers you can have younger children say to hasten the Holy Souls to their place in Heaven? The Eternal Rest prayer is great. You could teach them that prayer at the same time that they are learning the Our Father or the Act of Contrition. Another great prayer is the Memorare, because it includes offering particular intentions to commend to God that person who has died.
Once they have learned some simple prayers, plant a flower garden. The
children can water it and pray for their deceased loved one while they are watering. It will help them to visualize, "I'm doing something for Grandma."
For Older Children
What if you could somehow arrange for an army of personal patron saints to look after your children throughout their lives? You'd do it, right?
Well, you can. And here's how: Have them pray and offer sacrifices for the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
As we approach November, the month when the Church especially encourages us to remember the Holy Souls in Purgatory, I want to help you teach your children about this important devotion.
As I said in last month's article, praying for the Holy Souls is all about love. The children loved their grandmother (or whoever has passed away), so you can start by teaching them that one of the greatest act you can do for someone who has died is to pray for them. Focus their attention on their love for that person. Explain that this love doesn't end with death. Explain that, when we are praying for our loved ones, we are keeping that connection. Encourage them to speak in prayer to their deceased love one, saying something like, "Grandma, I love you so much that I'm going to be thinking about you and praying for you." But there is also the love that God has for all of us. Purgatory shows God's generous mercy. He does not leave us even in death, but gives us the means of healing beyond the grave so as to receive God's love perfectly. He meets us in our weakness, and he helps us to rise above it. Is this not how God also works with us during our lives? Let us thank the Lord for allowing Purgatory to exist.
On Nov. 2, the Church celebrates All Souls Day, when we remember and offer prayers for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, that they might be purified of any stain of sin still keeping them from fully entering into the Beatific Vision in Heaven. With older children, you can explain that the Lord gives us — the living — the honor to be a part of the healing process of the Holy Souls. Just as our prayers for one another in life have an impact, so too do our prayers for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. The Lord has willed it that the prayers we offer for our deceased loved ones can help purify them of any residue of sin. What a beautiful act of love: helping our loved ones to enjoy perfect love with God!
Now some may not be ready to hear that Grandma may be in Purgatory and needs our prayers. If you focus first on their natural love for grandma and the love that God has for their departed loved ones, it can get them praying. It can also open up doors later to say, "Maybe we are not ready for Heaven at the moment of our death. The Lord loves us so much, he wants to help us."
One of my favorite activities for older kids is to have them imagine themselves as a Holy Soul in Purgatory. Then I tell them that they have been forgotten. I let them picture what it would be like to be waiting, hoping that someone will help them get to Heaven. Then I tell them that, because of one person's prayers, they are now in Heaven. I ask the kids, "If you were that soul, would you ever forget what that one person, who maybe didn't even know who you were, did for you?" It really gets them thinking. They often say, "I would never forget that person."
I go on to explain that, once those souls in Purgatory reach Heaven, they become the personal patron saint of the person who helped them be released from Purgatory. Further, I tell them that by praying for the Holy Souls, you, in a sense, get an army of saints who want to return the favor to you in some way. So that can be a way of getting your children and grandchildren to think about how they can actively create this army of prayer warriors just by helping the Holy Souls.
Another activity is to take them to the cemetery. Maybe have them clean up and plant flowers around the graves of deceased loved ones. It will help them to visualize, "I'm here at the cemetery, Grandma is buried here, and I'm praying for her as I put flowers here. I'm doing something for Grandma." If you don't live close to your departed loved ones, I'd suggest cleaning up, and putting flowers around graves that have been forgotten, and saying prayers for the people buried there.
Speaking of cemeteries, I think it's interesting that young people are usually intrigued by ghost stories. Of course, some of those stories can be explained away, but, in our Catholic Tradition, we have many stories of saints being visited by the dead. Saint Faustina writes in her Diary of sisters coming back and asking for prayers (58).
Sometimes that youthful curiosity is helpful to get them talking about the Holy Souls, as long as they aren't moving into the realm of the occult. Those classic ghost stories can be a catalyst to talk about what the Church actually teaches about the tragedy of soldiers dying on the battlefield, many of whom are not prepared to meet the Lord. Maybe these ghost stories will remind them to pray for the souls in Purgatory and to say a prayer for soldiers.
If you are looking for ideas about what prayers to teach older children, I would teach them the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. I would also suggest the Prayer of St. Gertrude. The key to all of this is that they offer a prayer from the heart. They can pray during Adoration, the Mass, the Rosary, or at any moment throughout the day. And encourage them to offer up their sacrifices. They can offer their time, their exercise, or not eating that second piece of cake. Prayers and sacrifices are so important to the souls because they can't pray for themselves. They are counting on us. There are so many ways children can help all those souls, especially the forgotten souls. It all comes out of love.
Learn more about the Marian Fathers' charism of offering their lives for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Visit PrayForSouls.org.