Sunday, November 02, 2003

Thank God For Purgatory!

(All Souls Day 2003: This homily was given on November 2, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Daniel 12: 1-3; Romans 6: 3-9; John 6: 37-40.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Souls 2003]

The very fact that we have an All Souls Day on the liturgical calendar of the Church reminds us of the importance of praying for the dead. It also serves to remind us that purgatory is real—because if purgatory isn’t real, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to pray for the dead! If our deceased relatives and friends are already in heaven, they don’t need our prayers; and if they’re in hell, our prayers will not—and cannot!—help them.

And yet, many Catholics have trouble embracing this important doctrine of the faith. In some cases, this may be because they’ve been challenged by some of their Protestant friends, who have said to them, “Why do you Catholics believe in purgatory? The word purgatory isn’t found anywhere in the Bible! Don’t you know that?”

True enough. Of course, neither is the word Trinity found anywhere in the Bible—and yet every true Christian (Catholic and Protestant) believes that there are three Divine Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in the one, true God.

The bottom line is this: the word Trinity is not found in the Bible, but the truth about the Trinity is most definitely found there! For example, there are many New Testament passages (like Colossians 2:9 and John 10:30) in which the divinity of Jesus is clearly affirmed. And in certain verses of Acts 5 and John 15 (among others), the divinity of the Holy Spirit is witnessed to and revealed.

The Blessed Trinity, therefore, is merely the non-biblical term the Church uses to express the truth about the inner life of God which is revealed to us in the Bible.

Along the same lines, purgatory is the word the Church uses to speak of the “final sanctification” after death which is experienced by some of those who die in the state of grace. Here’s how the word is defined in the glossary of the new Catechism: Purgatory is “A state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven.”

Please note: It’s for those who die “in God’s friendship”; it’s not a “second chance” for those who die in the state of mortal sin. The notion that it’s a “second chance” is a common misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching.

And, as was the case with the Blessed Trinity, there are also many Biblical passages which point to the existence of purgatory: 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 is one example. That’s the text where St. Paul speaks about certain souls who are saved after passing through a purifying fire (fire, of course, is the traditional image for purgatory).

Other important passages are Hebrews 12: 14, where the Biblical writer tells us to “strive for that holiness without which no one can see the Lord”; Revelation 21:27 which tells us that “nothing profane shall enter [the kingdom of heaven]”; and 2 Maccabees 12: 38-46, where the sacred author commends Judas Maccabeus for offering prayers and sacrifices for the dead.

Again, the only reason such prayers and sacrifices could possibly be effective is if purgatory exists!

Let me share with you now a very good imaginative exercise through which you can help people (especially your anti-Catholic friends) to see the need for purgatory. I came across this about a year ago in an article by Benjamin Wiker which was printed in the National Catholic Register.

Wiker rightly notes that many of us have trouble seeing our own need to be “cleaned up” before entering God’s kingdom, but we have no trouble whatsoever recognizing the faults of others. (As Jesus would say, we have a much easier time seeing the speck in our brother’s eye than the plank in our own!)

Consequently, if someone we know is having difficulty believing in purgatory, a simple solution is to ask the person to imagine himself as the gatekeeper of heaven, in charge of the eternal destinies of others.

Remember, since he doubts the existence of purgatory, that can’t be an option for him when he makes his judgments. Every person who approaches him must be sent either directly to heaven or directly to hell.

Of course, what’s really interesting is when you put yourself in the position of the gatekeeper!

Try to imagine yourself in that role, as I now read to you a direct quote from Ben Wiker’s article:

“Your first day on the job and who should show up but one of your co-workers, Fred, the generally friendly but irritating office gossip. To the flames? Into eternal bliss? He isn’t really evil; he’s more like a slightly grating noise that, while not loud, distracts and agitates until it seems to fill the room. With Fred, forever, in heaven? The thought makes you shudder.

And isn’t that your neighbor, Heather Finwinkle? Oh, what a hell heaven would be if you had to listen to her drone on and on about her petty problems, world without end. That tedious, whining voice! That theatrically doleful look of hers, continually glancing to see if you’re properly sympathetic! An eternity next to her? You can’t even stand being next door!

And here comes Uncle Sid and Aunt Ethel, the ruin of every family gathering! Should they be let into heaven as is? An eternity like last Thanksgiving? Or the Christmas before last, decked with their same old fights, deep-rutted grievances and fingernails-on-the-chalkboard peccadilloes poisoning the holiday air? A few hours with them twice a year feels like an eternity. You break out into a cold sweat.”

Do you see the problem yet? I’m sure you do!

As Ben Wiker puts it, “If we are really honest about other people, we would not want them in heaven [as they are]. We rightly grasp that nearly everyone we know is an unfit companion for eternity. We can’t really consign them to eternal torment, yet with their annoying habits, tangle of little vices, tiresome concerns, tedious self-absorptions and lack of depth, we’d like to excuse ourselves politely from them and live forever on the far side of paradise.”

Of course, as Wiker rightly notes in the next paragraph of his article, if we could really be honest about ourselves, we would realize that WE are one of these troublesome people for someone else (and perhaps for nearly everyone else). Consequently, they’d have the same difficulty judging us, that we would have judging Fred, Heather Finwinkle, Uncle Sid and Aunt Ethel!

This is why purgatory is such a blessing! In purgatory, all that petty, annoying, sinful stuff is finally burned away, never to return; and what ultimately remains is a purified, transformed person: the loving, holy person that God created each of us to be in the first place.

Yes, it is possible to bypass purgatory altogether. Some extremely holy men and women have probably done so when they’ve died (these are people, no doubt, who suffered a great deal during their earthly lives). But even if we, and all our relatives and friends, are forced to pass through this state on our way to eternal bliss, it will be well worth it.

In fact (as hard as this may be to believe) we will actually be happy to experience purgatory, even if it involves some pain! Because—think about it—without purgatory, life in heaven would really be no better in certain respects than life here on earth. It’s only because of purgatory that heaven is, for lack of a better term, heavenly!

Which is why I say, “Thank God for purgatory!”