O God, Look Mercifully on Your Departed Servants

“Listen kindly to our prayers, O Lord, and, as our faith in your Son, raised from the dead, is deepened, so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants also find new strength.” (Collect for All Souls’ Day)

Pope Francis offers prayers before graves at the French military cemetery Tuesday in Rome before offering Mass for All Souls' Day.
Pope Francis offers prayers before graves at the French military cemetery Tuesday in Rome before offering Mass for All Souls' Day. (photo: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP via Getty Images)

On All Souls’ Day, that most solemn of days when the devoutly dead are commended to God, the Church petitions the Lord to treat with special tenderness those of her own household who, having died in a state not wholly purified, nevertheless hope to find forgiveness and peace on the other side. Where, amid those Precincts of eternal Felicity we all long to enter, we earnestly pray God awaits them with joy and undying love. It is the great Festival of Christian Hope.

But besides being a gesture of hope that we enact, it is also a necessary given of faith we believe. One whose formal codification, moreover, traces back to the 15th century when, at the Council of Florence, the Church set down the doctrine in two telling and magisterial sentences:

If those who are truly penitent depart from this life in the charity of God before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for their sins of commission and omission, their souls are cleansed by purgatorial sufferings after death. And the suffrages of the living — namely, the Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, alms-deeds and other works of piety — are profitable to those departed souls for the relief of their sufferings.

Here, then, at the highest possible level, is a teaching which, because it is true — which is to say, de fide — is also most deeply consoling. It answers a need, in other words, written not only upon the tablets of eternity, but in the human heart as well.  Which is that, at the very last, we shall find both God and the blessedness he has promised those who love him. That precisely because no one goes alone to meet God (only in Hell will the soul remain forlorn and alone … forever), we necessarily depend on the love and the friendship of others, whose prayers help us along the way. Is this not an essential aspect of the joy and the privilege of membership in the Church, that God should ask us to aid him in the salvation of others, particularly those whom we have loved and lost?

Are we not all obliged, after all, to face the finality of death? There can be no exceptions, either — no free passes issued to the anxious and careworn who wish to escape the dread summons which comes to us all. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is most explicit about this, leaving no ambiguity whatsoever. It reminds us that “death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (No. 1021; see 2 Timothy 1:9-10). And so there is simply no room left to maneuver, no choice save that of either God, who created us to be in his company, to share in an intimacy of unending bliss, or the choice of the self-centered self, who actually prefers an eternity without God, of saying over and to him, “I don’t want to love. I don’t want to be loved. I want to be left alone. Always and forever.”

Who, then, are the Holy Souls but those destined for a redeemed actuality, which is to say, Paradise, but not just yet — time itself having been extended into eternity in order to expiate all that remains undone. These are the souls, in other words, “who died in God’s grace and friendship,” while remaining “still imperfectly purified…and after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven” (No. 1030).

In his profound reflection upon hope, Spes Salvi, among the most beautiful and moving things Pope Benedict XVI ever wrote, we are told that to be cleansed by God, is to experience a final and definitive catharsis, amounting to the fulfillment of a need no greater than any we can conceive. It is one which we dare not put off, consisting of that refining fire which is simply another name for Purgatory.  “A cleansing by fire,” he calls it, “in which the gaze of Christ, so to say, burns us free from everything, and only under this purifying gaze are we fit to be with God and able, then, to make our home with him…”

The bottom line, of course, is the fact that, left to our own miserable and paltry devices, we remain utterly unprepared, bereft of that hope on which an eternity of happiness depends. Who among us could bear to stand naked and alone before God, untouched by the burning fire of his love? “And yet,” Benedict adds, “we don’t want to be, to use an image from Scripture, ‘a pot that turned out wrong,’ that had to be thrown away; we want to be able to be put right.”  

What, then, does such a place and state of being imply but the eternally reassuring truth that, while on our own dime we’ll never have enough change to buy our way in, and that with death one’s credit runs out, nevertheless “God can put the pieces back together again. That he can cleanse us in such a way that we are able to be with him and can stand there in the fullness of life.” Surely this is why, suggests Benedict, that were Purgatory not to exist, it would be necessary to invent it. 

Purgatory strips off from one person what is unbearable and from another the inability to bear certain things, so that in each of them a pure heart is revealed, and we can see that we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being.

There can be no happiness equal to that experienced by the souls in Purgatory, unless it be the happiness of Heaven, where souls, wiped clean away of all the dross of sin, find themselves lifted breathtakingly into the Arms of God. “There we shall rest and we shall see,” exclaims St. Augustine. “We shall see and we shall love. We shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end.”

Purgatory, without question, the deepest sort of suffering the soul is made to bear; yet, at the same time, the most blissfully borne of all. “The terrible torture,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, “of having to settle now all the things we have dreaded a whole life long. The doors we have frantically held shut are now torn open. But all the while this knowledge: now for the first time I will be able to do it — that ultimate thing in me, that total thing. Now I can feel my wings growing; now I am fully becoming myself…”

And thus by our prayers for the dead we hasten that consummation of desire we all share, in the exercise of which we endear ourselves to them in ways we cannot know until, please God, we see them again.