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Roman Catholic teaching states that many people spend a certain amount of time in purgatory after they die before going to heaven. I remember hearing something to the effect that people who are still living have the power to decrease the amount of time a deceased person has to spend in purgatory.

So, is this true? According to Roman Catholic teaching, can people who are still alive do things that will decrease the amount of time a deceased person has to spend in purgatory? If so, what sorts of things can be done and how much do each of them reduce the time? Is there an understanding of how much time one generally has to spend in purgatory in the first place?

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    Now why didn't I think of asking that? – David Stratton Dec 28 '12 at 18:54
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    @DavidStratton Indeed! It's far more pertinent for those who actually believe in purgatory! – Narnian Dec 28 '12 at 19:18
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There is no spreadsheet or calculator used to decide how long one is in purgatory. But there's no official take on the average sentence, time wise. According to the church, only God knows the exact amount of time a person must spend in purgatory before attaining a state of purity. It's assumed, however, that the severity of one's punishment will be directly proportional to the severity of the crime.

There are a few passages in the Catechism that talk about "decreasing time in purgatory:"

1498 Through indulgences the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory.

and

1475 In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.”87 In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.

These are based on 2 Macc 12: 40-46:

40 And they found under the coats of the slain, some of the donaries of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids to the Jews: so that all plainly saw, that for this cause they were slain. 41 Then they all blessed the just judgment of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden. 42 And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought him, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten. But the most valiant Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forasmuch as they saw before their eyes what had happened, because of the sins of those that were slain. 43 And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection. 44 (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead), 45 and because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. 46 It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

I heard a really good saint story about this, but I cannot seem to find it. I will edit once I do.

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According to Roman Catholic Doctrine, what things have the power to decrease a person's time in purgatory?

There comes to mind four things that can shorten the duration of time a Poor Soul stays in Purgatory.

  • Pray for the poor souls in purgatory in general and prayer for a particular soul in purgatory such as a family member. Can not tell you how many times I have heard this at the General Intentions at Mass: For the souls in Purgatory, let us pray.
  • One can have a Mass offered for them either in a general sense or for a particular Poor Soul.
  • One can apply an indulgence on their behalf in the month of November.
  • One can have Gregorian Masses said for a particular soul in Purgatory.

There are more ways to relieve the sufferings of the souls in purgatory than obtaining an indulgence in order to release them from their pains. Obtaining an indulgence for them is very common, especially during November. I was taught in the seminary that when we pray for a particular soul in purgatory and that that soul is no longer in need of our prayers that God will apply the merits to another soul in need. Prayer is never in vain.

Visit a Cemetery

An indulgence, applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory, is granted to the faithful, who devoutly visit a cemetery and pray for the departed. The indulgence is plenary each day from the 1st to the 8th of November; on other days of the year it is partial. Besides benefiting the Holy Souls, visiting a cemetery is a healthy reminder of our own mortality, realizing that we too will pass from this life to the next. - 5 Ways to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory

If the faithful can only gain one plenary indulgence for themselves once a day, it stands to reasons that a plenary indulgence for the faithful departed be applied to one soul also. The Church has a long standing tradition of offering Gregorian Masses for the souls in purgatory. These Masses are said for a particular soul (one) in purgatory which at the conclusion of the last Gregorian Mass that soul would be released from their sufferings in purgatory.

Gregorian Masses

During the 6th century, a deceased monk from St. Andrew’s Monastery in Rome (founded by St. Gregory) reportedly appeared to a friend and requested that 30 Masses be said to release his soul from purgatory. After the Masses were completed, the monk appeared again to declare he had entered heaven. Since that time, Catholics have continued the tradition of celebrating 30 consecutive Masses for one person to free his or her soul from purgatory. - Gregorian Masses

How can we obtain in indulgence?

What is a plenary indulgence? It is the remission before God of all the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. It can be obtained by those properly disposed under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church. The indulgence may be applied to the living or the dead.

The plenary indulgence can be gained according to the following norms:

  1. A plenary indulgence can be gained only once a day.

  2. After worthily celebrating sacramental confession, each member of the faithful can receive the gift of the plenary indulgence during a suitable time, even daily.

  3. The sacrament of penance and the Eucharist must be accompanied by prayer for the intentions of the Roman Pontiff and also by acts of charity and penance.

  4. Participation in the Eucharist should take place on the same day as the prescribed works are performed. - How to Gain the Jubilee Indulgence

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