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Remembering the dead, with the ‘Parish Purgatorial Prayer Society'

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Bob Grillo is a cradle Catholic from the Bronx, N.Y., who worked as a Navy contractor, raised three daughters and taught catechism for 50 years.

But as he approaches his 90th birthday April 20, the Korean War veteran and avid Yankees fan has become increasingly consumed with the plight of the suffering souls in purgatory.  He’s made it his mission to pray for them, and to urge others to do the same.  

“They are the forgotten church,” Grillo said in telephone interview from his home in Sterling Park, where he lives independently with assistance from his daughters and a part-time housekeeper. His wife of 51 years, Jane, died in 2009. 

“They’ve passed away, but nobody ever really dies,” Grillo added. “The soul lives on and goes to purgatory for the purification process. They’re not dead, they’re waiting for help.”

Grillo’s singular focus on purgatory began at a retreat he attended in 2018. He was given a book of reflections and prayers called “Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory” (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014) by Susan Tassone, a nationally known writer and speaker on the Catholic Church’s teachings on purgatory and the importance of praying for the dead. 

"We on earth — through our prayers, sufferings, sacrifices and acts of kindness offered to God on behalf of those souls — can help speed them on their way home," Tassone writes in the book's introduction.

Grillo convinced a few of his fellow parishioners at St. Joseph Church in Herndon to join him for a monthly prayer group focused on praying for the dead. That includes recently deceased parish members, friends and loved ones, as well as those they didn’t know personally but know about — such as the growing number of people around the world who have died from the new coronavirus, COVID-19. 

Grillo noted that Catholics don’t seem to talk about purgatory much these days: “We call it the Church Forgotten,” he added. Some also call the souls in purgatory the Church Penitent, while those alive on earth are known as the Church Militant, and those in heaven are the Church Triumphant. 

At St. Joseph Church in Herndon, the souls in purgatory assuredly are not forgotten, thanks to Grillo’s Parish Purgatorial Prayer Society, or P3S, started in 2018.

“It started with about five active members at that first meeting back in 2018 and we're now rolling with a solid 20 members, all committed to daily prayer for those souls in need,” said Jack McNulty, who met Grillo at St. Joseph — only to discover that Grillo had gone to Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx with McNulty’s dad.  

McNulty has been helping Grillo with technical and administrative aspects of the monthly prayer meetings — including setting up an online prayer group via the videoconferencing program Zoom for the April 9 meeting so the group can continue to pray together without leaving home during the coronavirus crisis. 

Meetings often include the Prayer of St. Gertrude the Great, who had a special devotion for souls in purgatory; the Divine Mercy Chaplet; readings from books of purgatorial reflections, such as “Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory”; several minutes of silent reflection, and sharing by group members of the names of beloved souls and a Hail Mary recited for each one.

McNulty can’t say enough about his admiration for Grillo, who he describes as “so resilient and so faithful.” 

This isn’t the first parish prayer group that Grillo has started, McNulty said. In 1982, Grillo was moved to create a Nocturnal Adoration Society, whose members would sign up for shifts in overnight eucharistic adoration to respond to Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Can you not watch one hour with me?”  

The church’s pastor at the time didn’t think Grillo would find enough parishioners willing to sign up, but he persisted — and the parish’s Nocturnal Adoration Society is still going strong after 38 years, McNulty said.

Grillo simply said that when an idea seems important to him, he feels an obligation to pursue it, especially when it comes to showing the selfless love of praying for souls in purgatory, known and unknown. But it’s not all completely selfless, he admits. 

“Someday when I am out of here, I hope people will pray for me.”

Find out more

For more information about the Parish Purgatorial Prayer Society at St. Joseph Church, or for an invitation to join the next prayer group meeting via Zoom, please email jackmcnulty@live.com.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020