Four Truths About Purgatory
User's Guide to Sunday, Nov. 2
Sunday, Nov. 2, is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day).
Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 23: 1-6; Romans 5:5-11; John 6:37-40
Today the Church’s calendar turns its attention to all the souls in purgatory. Here are four truths about purgatory suggested in today’s readings.
1. Being in God’s presence is not possible for most right away.
“God tried them and found them worthy of himself,” says our first reading. “As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings, he took them to himself.”
It is easy for us to forget the enormity of the experience of being in God’s presence. Think of how we would react if we had to meet the Pope in our pajamas: We would feel totally inadequate to the occasion. That is only a glimmer of how we will feel in the awesome presence of almighty God. It is only through great holiness that saints are able to bear the “all-consuming fire” that is God.
They have reached a union with Jesus Christ that has changed them and made them worthy.
Each of us should be striving to be that person, but few of us are there.
That’s why God made purgatory. Says the Catechism: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death, they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (1030).
2. Purgatory is suffering, but not torment.
“The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them,” says today’s first reading.
Purgatory is a good-news, bad-news situation for those who are there. The good news is: You are on the way to salvation. The bad news is: You have to suffer temporarily as you prepare for the presence of God. But it is very different from the pain of hell.
Pope Benedict XVI, in Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), said to think of the “fire” in purgatory the way we think of love:
“His gaze, the touch of his heart, heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. … The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.”
3. We should pray for those in purgatory.
“Hope does not disappoint,” says St. Paul in today’s second reading.
Many funerals and memorials nowadays are billed as “celebrations of the life” of the deceased. But if we think those who pass away merely drift into another, happier life, the Church tells us we have another thing coming: Only the holy can enter heaven. Most of us are far from that.
But if we worry about our loved ones, there is one thing we can do for them: Pray.
“From the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them,” says the Catechism. “The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (1032).
4. Purgatory is just another sign of the love of Jesus Christ.
“And this is the will of the One who sent me,” says Jesus in the Gospel, “that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the Last Day.”
If we think of God as a disciplinarian who wants to catch us doing something wrong, we do him a disservice. God has made it clear he will do whatever is necessary to help us get there — including dying for us while we were still sinners, in the words of St. Paul.
Wrote Pope Benedict: “The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together — judgment and grace — that justice is firmly established: We all work out our salvation ‘with fear and trembling.’ Nevertheless, grace allows us all to hope and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our ‘advocate.’”
We need to avoid presumption — purgatory is not a “back door” to heaven for those who choose to reject God’s grace on earth. Those people’s freedom leads them out of God’s presence forever — in hell.
But purgatory is an invention of our God of great mercy, who never wants to give up on us.
Tom and April Hoopes write from
Atchison, Kansas, where Tom is
writer in residence at Benedictine College.