The 13th century was, in truth, the century of Saints, and of Saints of no ordinary note; at the close of this century, as a crowning gift, came the great and beautiful Saint Gertrude, whose history has been too little known amongst us, while her very name receives continual homage of reverent love.
From the Introduction to The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude
I recently discovered St. Gertrude the Great. The more I learn about her devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist and to the holy souls in purgatory, the more my own devotion grows.
St. Gertrude was a 13th-century German Benedictine nun and mystic who was graced with heavenly visions. She was one of the earliest mystics to whom Jesus encouraged a devotion to His Sacred Heart—nearly 400 years before He revealed His Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque!
Describing God’s love as an inexhaustible ocean of beatitude, Gertrude implored those around her to pray for the souls in purgatory, and her special devotion to the holy souls made her a patron of the dead. In fact, three devotions to the holy souls are associated with her: praying the “St. Gertrude prayer,” visiting a cemetery, and offering Masses for those who have died.
In the Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude, it is recounted that Jesus showed Gertrude a vast number of souls entering heaven from purgatory as a result of her faithful and frequent recitation of a prayer which He gave her to pray.
The St. Gertrude Prayer
According to tradition, in one of her visions Our Lord told St. Gertrude that each time she piously recited the prayer, it would greatly ease the suffering of those holy souls in purgatory. The prayer, often referred to as “St. Gertrude’s prayer,” is as follows:
Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.
Many Catholics say this prayer during November when the Church dedicates the entire month to praying for the holy souls—but it can be recited at any time and is easily memorized.
Not long ago we visited a friend’s family at their home in Virginia. While there, we all gathered around the firepit at night and they led us in the Rosary. After each decade, the family member who was leading that decade recited St. Gertrude’s prayer. Because I often forget to pray for the souls in purgatory, I was moved by the words. Since then I’ve added the prayer to my own recitation of the Rosary.
Another way to honor the dead is to pray at a cemetery or the gravesite of a loved one. When St. Gertrude died and was interred, her fellow sisters gathered to pray at her grave.
In the Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude the following is recorded:
After the corpse had been interred, while the response Regnum mundi was singing, wonderful signs of the beatitude of Gertrude were beheld in heaven, and the very walls and pavement of the monastery seemed to thrill with joy.
The Saint appeared, with a troop of virgins of admirable beauty. She held a lily and other flowers in her right hand, and on her left conducted the religious of her community who had already attained eternal beatitude.
The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude
A number of years ago I took some of our children on an All Souls’ Day visit to a cemetery with a few other Catholic families. One of the moms read aloud from a little book she had brought about the holy souls. It was a simple reflection written for kids on how and why we should pray for the dead. It also explained that a cemetery has a lot to teach us.
At one point while this mom read aloud she slowed down her speech to a deliberate whisper. She then asked the kids in the group:
“What did those who are buried here take with them?”
The answer was an obvious one and some of the children responded—but I’ll never forget the way she emphasized the words:
“That’s right—they took nothing with them but their souls.”
Each of us will die one day, and when we do, it will be the state of our souls that matters.
In fact, many saints, including St. John Vianney, St. Faustina, and St. Josemaría Escrivá, encouraged the faithful to think often of their own death. This is one of the poignant aspects of a cemetery—the graves point to the fleeting nature of this earthly life and to the certainty of death.
Holy Mass and Mass Cards
The most efficacious way we can pray for the poor souls is through the Holy Mass, the greatest prayer of all. St. Gertrude, who had a great devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist, mentions this in her writings when she describes a vision she had after she and her fellow sisters prayed during Mass for a certain religious sister who had died:
At the Mass, when they sung at the offertory Hostias ac preces tibi domine, our Lord elevated His right hand, and shed forth from it marvelous light, which illuminated the whole heaven, but especially this soul (for which we prayed), which was in the bosom of our Lord. Then the saints approached, each according to their rank, and placed their merits as an offering on the breast of Jesus, to supply for the deficiencies of this soul.
The religious knew that they acted thus because, when that soul was on earth, she had been accustomed to pray that the Saints would give this assistance to the souls of the deceased.
The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude
St. Gertrude was known to implore her nuns to appreciate the gift of the Mass and consider giving that gift to another soul. Now that I have this image in my mind I try to remember, as often as I attend Mass, to offer it for the intention of the souls in purgatory.
It is a holy gesture, encouraged by the Church, to have Holy Masses offered for another person—either living or deceased. Mass cards, memorializing when and where the Mass was said, can be obtained with a donation to parish churches.
My devout friend, Janet, is godmother to our son, John. For as long as I can remember Janet has sent a Mass card to him on his birthday. When he was younger he didn’t appreciate the significance of the gift, but he recently turned eighteen, and when the card came in the mail I could see by his smile that he was genuinely happy to receive it. As his mother, I am always grateful that his godmother prays for him in this powerful way!
It is profound to think of how a Holy Mass might assist our loved ones who have died as well.
St. Gertrude never missed an opportunity to offer Mass for the poor souls. May we try to imitate her and do the same.
St. Gertrude, pray for us!
This article can be found in our Good Catholic series, Purgatory: Cleansing Fire.