Bringing Up Purgatory at a Funeral?

Dante depicted as looking at purgatory, in a 16th-century painting.
Dante depicted as looking at purgatory, in a 16th-century painting. (photo: Wikipedia)

Is it in bad taste, even insensitive, to speak of purgatory at a funeral?

Many seem to think so. In my experience, most homilists at funeral Masses report that our loved one is already in heaven, and we should hold onto that thought as we grieve our loss.

So I was startled this month when the homilist at a recent funeral Mass for an old friend asked the congregation to pray for him in purgatory.  The priest added, as if anticipating the shock of some mourners: “It seems to me, any Christian who does not accept purgatory, diminishes God’s love for man, and at the same time devalues the beauty of the human person."

His intriguing words grabbed my attention.

The priest, Dominican Father Paul Raftery, began his reflection noting the fact that the deceased, whom I will call Bill, had spent many years in a wheelchair following a stroke. It was radical change of life for a father of two teenagers. But Bill, in a conversation with one of his daughters shortly before his death, described it as a “blessing.”

Granted, Bill hadn’t asked for the debilitating effects of the stroke. But, as he put it, we rarely ask for the hardships that often "lead us to the Father’s house."

“With God there are always special reasons for suffering,” said t Father Raftery during his homily.

“This is what we find in our first reading (Wis. 3.1-9). As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself. In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble…”

The Dominican further observed, “Those mining for valuable metal must all the time come across ore that isn’t worth putting in the furnace. They just leave it. It’s worthless. And they keep looking for the really valuable ore. That is what they put in the furnace.

“When God sends us suffering, that act always means: You are gold for Me. I will never discard you, or put you aside. So much is hidden in you, so much radiance, that my love moves me to purify all that detracts from your perfection, to bring you to full splendor.

“So for years in bearing with his stroke, this was Bill. He was in the furnace of God’s love in order to bring out the pure gold that is in him.

“And now we offer this Holy Mass, that if this purifying love of God is still active for Bill in purgatory, we can help him.”

“In effect, if there is no purgatory, then so many souls leaving this world end up being abandoned by God as not worth rehabilitating, not worth further purification. They are useless ore to be cast aside.

“But such is the beauty of Catholic teaching on purgatory that the human person who wants to be with God, no matter how imperfect he may be, is of such value in God’s sight that He would never cast that soul aside. Man is always precious in God’s eyes. And if a person is not yet at that stage of pure gold, so magnificent is his potential splendor that God employs every possible means to clear away the dross, and let the true beauty shine forth."

“That being said, He wants us to have this love for souls as well, and to show that by praying for them, that they might move speedily through their purification, and reach their full splendor.”

What will Bill be like when the refiner’s fire of purgatory brings out the “pure gold” that is in him? “Astounding perfection” is how Father Raftery described it.

“A nobility of soul is ahead for him that will raise him to great authority, and our prayers can help make that happen.

“There is a brilliance and beauty that will be his through our prayers: …they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble…

“There are heights of understanding and love that will be his: Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love…

“Above all he will have a home that will forever be his, where he will dwell in a happiness we cannot fathom with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

After the funeral Mass, the mourners spoke about the homily, and no one could recall ever hearing such words at a funeral -- or at any other time. Strikingly, this ancient teaching did not stir anxiety among us, but a sense of peace and a resolve  to keep Bill in our own prayers. 

For if we believe in purgatory, we must pray for our beloved friend, spouse, parent, child or sibling so they may speedily receive God’s mercy, be purified, and “reach their full splendor.”