As Requiem Masses and Funerals have increasingly become “celebrations of life” and homilies often resound with “Gran is in heaven”, some might think that purgatory was thrown out with Vatican II. This could not be further from the truth, for the concept of purgatory, based on Scripture and Tradition, is fundamental to Catholic belief. The Church teaches that, “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). And Revelation 21:27 tells us most clearly that “…nothing unclean will enter heaven.”
Already the early Christians recognized the need to remember and assist the souls of the departed. Tertullian in his work, The Crown (AD 211) states:
“We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries.”
St John Chrysostom in his Homilies on 1 Corinthians (AD 392) says:
“Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
And St Augustine says in City of God (AD 419):
“Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter…”
Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) provided a synthesis of the doctrine of purgatory and declared its name for the Universal Church. He wrote to the Bishop of Tusculum stating:
“Finally, in the Gospel the Truth declares that whoever speaks blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this world or in the world to come (Matthew 12:32). By this it is to be understood that certain faults are pardoned in this life, and certain others in the life to come, and the Apostle says that ‘the fire will assay the quality of everyone’s work,’ and ‘if his work burns he will lose his regard, but himself will be saved, yet so as through fire’ (I Cor. 3:13, 15).
“And it is said that the Greeks themselves unhesitatingly believe and maintain that the souls of those who do not perform a penance which they have received, or the souls of those who die free from mortal sins but with even the slightest venial sins, are purified after death and can be helped by the prayers of the Church. Since the Greeks say that their Doctors have not given them a definite and proper name for the place of such purification, We, following the tradition and authority of the holy Fathers, call that place purgatory; and it is Our will that the Greeks use that name in the future. For sins are truly purified by that temporal fire — not grievous or capital sins which have not first been remitted by penance, but small and slight sins which remain a burden after death, if they have not been pardoned during life.”
We might fervently wish to avoid purgatory and on death come straight into the presence of Almighty God. The saints have shown us not only that it is desirable to have such a noble aspiration, but that through the practice of virtue and prayer, through sacrifice and suffering, we can indeed be completely purified during our earthly existence. Nevertheless we must see purgatory, the provision for souls to complete the cleansing process in the hereafter, as part of God’s great mercy.
Pope John Paul II, in a reflection on purgatory, explains:
“Jesus, as the great intercessor who atones for us, will fully reveal himself at the end of our life expressing himself with the offer of mercy, but also with the inevitable judgment for those who refuse the Father’s love and forgiveness. This offer of mercy does not exclude the duty to present ourselves to God, pure and whole, rich in that love which Paul calls a ‘bond of perfect harmony’ (Col 3:14).”
“every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete…”
He further elucidates:
“The term purgatory does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them imperfection.”
The Catechism also teaches that the Holy Souls belong to the Communion of Saints:
“Those, in fact, who find themselves in the state of purification are united both with the blessed who already enjoy the fullness of eternal life, and with us on this earth on our way towards the Father’s house (CCC 1032).”
We (the Church Militant) are therefore at one both with the saints (the Church Triumphant) in heaven and the Holy Souls in purgatory (the Church Suffering). Just as we are able to turn for help to the saints in our need, so we are able to assist these souls in theirs.
In the words of Pope John Paul II:
“As believers in earthly life are united in the one Mystical Body, so after death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer, prayers for suffrage and love for their other brothers and sisters in the faith. Purification is lived in the essential bond created between those who live in this world and those who enjoy eternal beatitude.”
Since we cannot know whether a soul is already in heaven, in purgatory or hell, we need to pray, gain indulgences, offer sacrifices and have Masses said for them throughout our lives. We must assume that they are being purified, whilst hoping that they are in heaven and not damned. If we pray for a loved one who is already with the Lord, we can be sure that our prayer will assist another soul. It is also a great act of charity to pray for the Holy Souls who have no one to pray for them. St Bellarmine teaches that because the Church Suffering is so close to God, their prayers for us are very effective. As we pray for our departed loved ones and all the Holy Souls in purgatory, we can confidently ask them to pray for us too.
To ease their suffering, let us remember these beloved souls always, but in particular today and throughout November, the month the Church dedicates especially to them. Let us be generous in praying for them, making sacrifices for them and having Holy Masses offered for them.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen
Suggested devotions for the month of the Holy Souls:
- An indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly visit a cemetery and pray for the dead. This plenary indulgence is applicable only to the souls in purgatory and can be gained on each day from 1 to 8 November.
- Double up on prayers (and sacrifices) for departed loved ones and friends during this powerful season of the Holy Souls (the November remembrance).
- Visit cemeteries (with our children). Teach others to pray the Eternal Rest prayer. Sprinkle holy water on the graves in the cemetery.
- Light blessed candles. The burning of a candle is a sign of our prayer, a bright, silent intercessor for the Holy Souls.