Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
Last year Patty Knap wrote a column about St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) and her love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and for the Holy Souls of purgatory.
St. Gertrude the Great is perhaps best known for her prayer for the souls in purgatory, found on many a Mass Card in any number of funeral homes, which Patty mentioned and bears repeating here, especially since St. Gertrude’s feast day (Nov. 16) falls within the month when we pray for our beloved dead:
Eternal Father, I offer You the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus Christ, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, those in the Universal Church, in my home, and in my family.
One thing about this prayer has always struck me as a bit curious: the adjective “Holy” when referring to the Souls in purgatory.
For one thing: if these souls were “Holy,” wouldn’t they be in Heaven? And contrariwise: are there souls in purgatory that are in some way not holy?
This is not one of those insufferable “How-Many-Angels-Can-Dance-On-The-Head-Of-A-Pin?” CCD-teacher-stumping questions, but rather a simple and straightforward query: “What makes the souls in purgatory holy?”
When I posed this question to Fr. Joseph G. Hubbert, a professor at Niagara University’s religious studies department, he reminded me of the difficult times in which St. Gertrude lived, and said, “To the poor who were left here in this Valley of Tears, consigned to a life of toil, drudgery, disease, and the occasional outbreak of war, purgatory was indeed a ‘holy’ place.” It was seen as a respite from the suffering right here on earth—a suffering that was different from that of the suffering of purgatory.
Fr. Hubbert also pointed out that after life on this earth, which ineluctably ends in death, purgatory is a place that has only one direction: “to Heaven.”
Which is not to say the journey through purgatory is easy, or without pain. Indeed, though Doctors of the Church from St. Augustine to St. Gregory the Great touched on the purifying fire of purgatory it took St. Thomas Aquinas to remind us that the smallest pain in purgatory is worse than the greatest suffering on earth. However, this agony is offset by the “certitude of salvation.”
I think it’s these last three words, “certitude of salvation” that make the souls in purgatory “holy” souls (though they are certainly “poor” souls as well, vis-à-vis the souls in Heaven who are experiencing the beatific vision.) While they are in what the Catechism calls a “cleansing fire”—a difficult concept, but I’m often reminded of my father sterilizing a needle under a flame before removing a splinter from my foot as a child—the emphasis is on the adjective “cleansing.”
St. Gertrude—who is one of the few saints with the title “The Great”—indeed, one of the only women with that sobriquet and among the ranks of men like Leo, Gregory, Albert and James, and, in the East, Basil—was certainly a woman ahead of her time. Her visions and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus predated St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s more popular and widespread diffusion in France by more than 300 years.
Further, her concept of the souls in purgatory as not just a plethora of Dantean caricatures suffering all means and modes of punishments, but as holy souls, souls being sanctified, points to a woman whose perspicacity on mystical spirituality is relevant to us even today.