Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
If you are just joining us, we are continuing a discussion of the Church's teaching on Purgatory. Last time, we ended with this question.
If baptism and faith in Christ covers our sin and gives us God's grace, why then is sanctification necessary?
Because baptism is grace, not magic. Grace is the life of God planted in the human soul. It is the "imperishable seed" given us by God (1 Peter 1:23). But the seed must grow, as our Lord taught (Matthew 13:1-32). It is not simply, as some have taught, a covering of our sins like snow on a dunghill, but is rather a means of transforming us in our inner being, as Paul taught.
Consider Israel. In the book of Exodus we read the story of how God got Israel out of slavery. But in the book of Numbers we also read about how, in order for them to be ready for the Promised Land (which is an image of our heavenly destiny), God had to get slavery out of the Israelites via a series of chastisements and healings of their idolatry, their disobedience and their rebelliousness. They, not just their circumstances, had to be changed. This is why it is a mistake to think of God's "covering" our sins as the be all and end all of the Christian life. God does indeed cover and forgive our sins (Romans 4:7). But that is not the end of the story. The bandage that covers a wound is a blessed thing. But more blessed still is the healing the bandage promotes. In the same way, God's grace "covers" our sin, but also gives us the medicine of discipline, to heal our souls and make us more like Christ. Scripture is well aware of this fact when it says, "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives" (Hebrews 12: 5-6).
Such discipline respects us by operating through our cooperation with God's grace. This is why James tells, not non-Christians, but baptized and faithful believers, "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind" (James 4:8). James is aware that the forgiveness given in baptism is the beginning, not the end, of sanctification, which is intended by God to turn each and every one of into glorious saints. But that process will not take place without us. Our free cooperation is necessary every step of the way. That is why Paul tells us that Jesus will "present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before [God], provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you heard" (Colossians 1:22-23).
How can you die "in God's grace and friendship" yet be imperfectly purified?
The same way we can live in God's grace and friendship, yet be imperfectly purified. Every day we struggle with the reality of sin in our lives. We do things we are ashamed of and for which we reproach ourselves. Every day we struggle to overcome, not just sinful acts, but habits of sin. Yet every day God welcomes us, loves us and gives us grace to become a little bit more like Jesus than we were before, if we only repent. The reason this is possible is because there is a difference between "sin that leads to death" (i.e. mortal sin) and "sin that does not lead to death" (i.e. venial sin). Venial sins can hurt our relationship with God (like a bad cut hurts the body) but not kill that relationship (like a bullet to the heart kills the body). To drive that point home, John specifically tells us, "All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal" (1 John 5:17). For such "non-mortal" sin John gives us the key to healing: prayer. This is why he says, "If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal." (1 John 5:16).
We experience this every day when we sin and repent. The ideal, of course, is to have neither large nor small wounds to the soul. But it is also important to recognize that not every sin means a person is a monster of evil who has utterly rejected God, nor that every impurity in the soul means that a person who dies impure is bound for hell. Many people go to their graves struggling with sin. Purgatory reminds us their struggle will not be futile, they will "be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man" and inevitably triumph, finding the perfect happiness they always sought, if not in this life then in the next. This is in accord with John's counsel to pray for those who are struggling against sin. After all, struggling against sin is a pretty good sign that one is still seeking the grace of God and has not severed one's relationship with him! That is also why the Church prays for those who died without finishing their process of becoming saints. Purgatory is a monument to hope!
But aren't the dead supposed to go straight to heaven?
If the dead are not fully heavenly, not fully prepared (though willing to become that way) for a life of total love and self-giving at the hour of their death, how could they yet enjoy perfect happiness in heaven any more than the Israelites could love God completely when they were still tainted with the slavish minds and hearts of Egypt?
This is not to say those in Purgatory are not sharing in the life of God. On the contrary, the dead in Christ are very much alive! Christ himself taught this when he told the Sadducees, "Have you not read what was said to you by God, 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:31-32). Further, he demonstrated that the dead in Christ are alive by permitting Moses to appear-alive-to the apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).
But not all the dead in Christ are fully ready-solidly built enough, we might say-for the intense, endless, ecstatic joy of Heaven since not all the dead die in perfect union with God. In Christ, we have been given a solid foundation of grace like a house built on rock (Matthew 7:24). But it happens every day that we try to build on the foundation with our own agendas, ideas, fears and superstitions, often mixed in with genuine building materials given us by the Divine Contractor. We often don't know what is wrong with the house of God we are building. We only have the vague sense that it is rather drafty and is not exactly the "mansion" Jesus spoke of. Paul tells us what will become of the low-grade materials we attempt to use: "Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble-each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. . . . If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Corinthians 3: 12-13, 15). Purgatory is the process whereby we "lose" the last hindrances to perfect happiness with God.
Wasn't Purgatory unheard of in Scripture and only invented in the Dark Ages?
We will address this common misperception next time.