Purgatory and Presumption: Don't Forget to Pray for Those Who Have Gone Before

Please don’t let presumption blind you to the need to pray for those who have gone before us.

Detail from the Waldenburg Prayer Book, WLB Stuttgart, Cod. Brev. 12, fol. 84r (1486)
Detail from the Waldenburg Prayer Book, WLB Stuttgart, Cod. Brev. 12, fol. 84r (1486) (photo: Screenshot)

The first months of 2017 have been full of celebrity passings:

  • Roger Moore, star of seven “James Bond” films, died in Switzerland on May 23 at the age of 89, following a brief battle with cancer.
  • He was preceded in death by Hollywood icon John Hurt, Oscar-nominated actor who starred in “The Elephant Man,” “1984” and “Harry Potter.” Hurt died of pancreatic cancer on January 27 at 77.
  • And just two days earlier Mary Tyler Moore, star of the show which bore her name, suffered cardiopulmonary arrest due to pneumonia and died at Connecticut's Greenwich Hospital at the age of 80.
  • Best-selling author William Peter Blatty, whose 1971 blockbuster “The Exorcist” was made into a major motion picture, died January 12 at the age of 87.
  • In the world of music, guitarist J. Geils passed away April 11; and Southern rocker Greg Allman, founder of the Allman Brothers Band, died May 27 at his Savannah home from complications of liver cancer.
  • Mike Illitch, founder of Little Caesar's Pizza and owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, died February 10 at the age of 87.
  • Comedian Don Rickles (90), king of insult comedy, died of kidney failure April 5 at his Beverly Hills home.

Now, I’m not saying that these people, well-known cultural icons, are more important than the other thousands who have also ended their life on this earth in the past months.

What I’m saying is this: We are all dying. We live as though that were not true—as though the new dress or new house or new relationship or new job were really our goal in life, rather than the true goal: getting to heaven. From the moment we are born, we are all spiraling toward eternity.

There are devout and well-intentioned Christian brothers who believe that “absent from the body means present with the Lord.” However, the case for Purgatory as a stop along the way to heaven is both logical and biblical.

Let’s imagine you’re dead. You ate a rotten peanut, or you took a bullet for your best friend, or you stumbled onto a busy roadway on a dark and stormy night….

It doesn’t really matter how it happened—but now here you are, spiraling and spinning toward eternity, lining up for your first meeting with…. well, you’re on your way to…. um…. uh-oh…. to God.

And in your deepest being, you know that from the beginning of time—since before the beginning of time, in fact—He has loved you, has yearned for you to truly love Him, too. And you know that He has worked everything for your good, has given you one opportunity after another to recognize Him in the people around you, in the circumstances of your life.

But you were busy.

Before you get huffy: I’m not trying to single you out here. That’s my story, too—and the story of every human who has walked the face of the earth. (Well, everyone, that is, except for His mother Mary, who was preserved from sin in order to be the perfect Ark of the Covenant, the spotless Theotokos.)

So we, sinful creatures all, step out of this life into eternity—and we know, more clearly than we have never known anything, that we are not worthy to be in the presence of the Almighty God. In life, we may have casually popped the Eucharist onto our tongue, drunk of the Precious Blood, then gone back to our pews to idly watch the others return to their seats, ogling the cute boys or checking out the fashion faux pax, hardly pausing to ponder the great impossibility, the unimaginable truth, that God has given Himself to us, in the flimsy gift wrap of bread and wine. Wholly. Fully.

We have ignored Him, too, when we have not bothered to pray; when we have gossiped about our neighbors; when we have shirked our responsibilities in the workplace, when we have allowed anger to govern our relationships or our driving, when we have cheated on our diets or (yikes!) cheated on our spouses.

We are earthen vessels, all of us. And we know instinctively that we cannot face the great and mighty God in our current condition. True, we have been redeemed by the Blood of Christ, and His sacrifice has made it possible for us to be with Him for all eternity. First, though, we need to wash up—get ready for the party, for the great receiving line.

That’s what Purgatory is. It’s the washroom, the hot shower, where we become like Him. Were we to remain sniveling complainers, or bigots, or racists, or petty thieves, or just lazy bumpkins, we would be blinded by the great white light of Heaven, unable to bear being in the presence of He Who Is. We must be transformed, so that we can be one with God and with all of His creation, there eternally praising Him and sharing in His glory.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1030) says that Purgatory is “a purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” It’s a place where those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” can have their souls shined up a bit, before their personal encounter with God.

Purgatory is nothing like Hell—in fact, people in Purgatory experience some modicum of joy, knowing that they are en route to an eternity with Christ. Those who are confined to Hell have no such consolation—having, in their great pride, rejected God’s grace in their lives and turned their faces away from Him for all eternity.

So these folks with whom I (and you) will hopefully share a spell in Purgatory are aware that Heaven is their destination. This good news buoys them, even as they learn how to be More Like God. The Catechism (CCC 1031) explains that “this final purification of the elect… is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”

The hot shower just ain’t so bad.

Where is all this going? Well, some of you may know that my dear niece died recently of cancer; and over a period of days, I talked with many people—many of whom assured me that she was most certainly already in heaven. They said it in different ways: “She suffered her Purgatory here on earth, during her time in the hospital.” “She’s finally at rest.” “God has taken her to be with Him.” “She’s happy with her dad now.”

To which I say (excuse my bluntness), “How the hell would you know that?”

The effect of Purgation, as I understand it, is that the person becomes Shiny Like God. Only when all sin is eliminated, when the soul shines with a purity and grace unknown on this earth, will he or she be ready to enter into eternal happiness in heaven.

That could happen in an instant, or over a long period of time. In our casual culture, it’s common to act as though the deceased person has already passed through any unfortunate suffering which might be imposed, and is already in the arms of the Father. But why would we presume that?

I remember a story from a childhood book on Our Lady of Fatima. Mary, speaking to the three young visionaries, told them that one young woman—a girl of about 14, if I recall—“would be in Purgatory until the end of Time.” What sort of great sins must this young girl have accumulated in her short lifetime, to warrant such a delay in welcoming her to Heaven? (You might take a minute right now to pray for that girl—since she may, in fact, still await admission to the pearly gates….)

The Council of Trent, Session XXV (December 3-4, 1563), reconfirmed the long-standing teaching of the Church, “that Purgatory exists, and that the souls detained therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.”

Please don’t let presumption blind you to the need to pray for those who have gone before us.

Please pray for my niece, who remained imperfect despite her confinement and who, no doubt, fell short of reflecting the full glory of God. Of course, much can be forgiven due to her frailty during her illness; and if we, her loving family, cut her some slack for her obstinacy, how much more must her Heavenly Father love her and want to hold her to Himself?

But unless you have some super-duper inside track with St. Peter at the gate, you don’t really know what’s goin’ on with Angela right now. And if she’s waiting, in need of our prayers, and you aren’t there for her, you know how much she’d like to hit you upside of the head? Pray for her. Pray for her always, until the day you die, because you just don’t understand what it’s like out there in Eternity. If she’s already in Heaven, your prayers can be reassigned to some poor bloke who needs them. But don’t stop!

Please pray for my other relatives, too. My father was a good and faithful man, and he died many years ago; but what do we on earth know of his experience outside of Time, and whether he is even yet with God in Heaven? Please pray for him.

And when I die, please pray for me. The Lord (and my husband) know that I’m not perfect. And no one knows just what it will take for me to reach that state of perfection where I’ll feel properly dressed to go in to the banquet.

I won’t be able to tell you then, so let me tell you now: I am one heck of a piece of work, and it’s gonna take a lot to polish me up for heaven. Your prayers, especially your offerings of Masses, are so needed, and so appreciated.

Pray for me, and I will pray for you.