Sunday, November 02, 2014

A Reflection on Purgatory

(All Souls’ Day 2014: This homily was given on November 2, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 3: 1-9; 2 Maccabees 12; 1 Corinthians 3; Romans 6: 3-9; John 6: 37-40.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Souls 2014]

The adults who come to our Catechism class prepare at home beforehand by first reading a short section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (usually about 10 pages), and then answering some questions on that section—questions that have been prepared by yours truly.

Well, in Lesson 19 (which we studied last year), I gave them this question:

Joe Partly-Catholic [he makes an appearance every once in a while in these lessons] says to you, “I just booked a Mass for my deceased mother.”  A few minutes later the subject of purgatory comes up, and Joe says, “Purgatory?  There is no such place.  It’s either heaven or hell—period.” 
How would you respond to Joe?

Think about that for a moment.

What would you say—what should you say—to this man who claims to be a Catholic disciple of Jesus Christ?

Well, I’ll tell you what I would say to him.  I’d say, “Then why, Joe, are you having a Mass offered for your deceased mother?  If, as you claim, there is no purgatory, then it's absolutely useless to pray for the dead!  Our prayers can’t help people who are in hell, since they’re damned for all eternity; and our prayers aren’t needed by people in heaven, since they've already entered God's eternal Kingdom!  If you REALLY believe that purgatory doesn't exist, then you shouldn't have Masses offered for ANY of your deceased relatives and friends.  Furthermore, why give a monetary offering (like you just did) for something that has absolutely no value at all?!”

Obviously, I’d respond that way in the hope that Joe would see the contradiction between his belief and his action, and then change his belief.

Because his mom might need the prayers!

The Feast of All Souls which we celebrate in the Church this weekend is rooted in the belief that many people—probably most people—who die in the state of grace are not quite ready for heaven.  Yes, they leave this life with sanctifying grace in their souls—which is absolutely necessary for salvation. 

Sanctifying grace, you will recall, is the grace that Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead to give us.  Sanctifying grace: don’t leave earth without it!  We first receive this grace at Baptism—although we can lose it during the course of our earthly lives through mortal sin.  But the good news is that it can always be restored—until our dying breath.  It doesn’t have to be gone forever.  Ordinarily, that restoration happens through the sacrament of Confession.

So these people die in a condition of friendship with God—which means they WILL eventually end up in the Lord’s eternal kingdom.  (As St. Paul said in our second reading from Romans 6, “If we have died with Christ … we shall also live with him.”)  But they’re not quite ready for heaven when they take their final breath.  Perhaps they still have some venial sins that they haven’t completely repented of; or some sinful attachments that they haven’t completely let go of; or some sins that they haven’t made sufficient amends for.

This is where purgatory comes into the picture. 

The Bible says in Revelation 21 that “nothing impure will enter [the kingdom of heaven].”
NOTHING impure!  This means that no soul with any sin on it—mortal or venial; no soul that has a sinful attachment (even a very, very small one!) can enter the glorious and eternal—AND PERFECT—kingdom of God!

So how are the souls of people who die in the state of grace (but who still have some of these minor imperfections) purified and made ready for the Beatific Vision?

That question is answered in paragraph 1030 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church where we read: “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.”

That’s purgatory!

Now it’s interesting, the word “purgatory” itself is not found anywhere in the Bible.  Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters are fond of pointing that fact out to us.  Of course, the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible either—yet every mainline Protestant believes in the Blessed Trinity.

But even though the word purgatory isn’t in the Bible, the truth about purgatory—and about the need for certain souls to be purified before they can get into heaven—IS in the Sacred Scriptures; just as the truth that there are three divine Persons in the one true God is there in the Scriptures (although the word Trinity isn’t).

For example, in 2 Maccabees 12 we hear about the ancient Jewish practice of praying for the dead.  The Biblical writer calls it an “excellent and noble act”—which obviously means he approved of it.

Well, as I made clear to Joe Partly-Catholic in my response to him, the only reason—the only possible reason—to pray for the dead is if purgatory exists!  Prayers for people in hell are useless, and prayers for people in heaven are unnecessary.

And then there’s the classic “purgatory text” in 1 Corinthians 3, where St. Paul speaks about judgment and salvation.  In that passage he indicates that some people will be saved, but only after they pass through “fire” (that’s the term he uses), which is why one of the traditional images for purgatory has always been fire.

But it’s not the same fire that people will experience who go to hell.  We need to be clear about that.  The fire in hell is a fire which destroys; the fire in purgatory is a fire which purifies.

That’s a huge difference!

In chapter 12 of the Letter to the Hebrews, the sacred author says that our God is a “consuming fire.”  In other words, in his presence all impurities—all imperfections—all sins—are burned away.

And that’s a good thing!

We see this same idea in today’s first reading from Wisdom 3, where the Biblical writer says this about “the souls of the just” who die. … He says, “As gold in the furnace, he [God] proved them.”

Gold isn’t put into a furnace to destroy it; it’s put into a furnace and subjected to intense heat in order to cleanse it and make it shine more gloriously.

And so it is with human souls.

Here’s where our Masses and prayers and sacrifices figure into the equation.  All of these can help souls in purgatory pass through the “fire” of purification more quickly.

This is why it disturbs me when I find out that certain people are not praying for their deceased relatives and friends because they’re convinced that these relatives and friends are already in the kingdom.

Yes, they might be—that’s true.  But the only way we can know with certitude that they’re in heaven is if they’re canonized.  If they’re not canonized, we don’t know; and so we should continue to pray for them—especially by having Masses said for the repose of their souls.

Because that’s what THEY want us to do if they’re currently in purgatory!  The last thing souls in purgatory want is for people on earth to stop praying for them—because without our prayers their purification will take longer.

But, Fr. Ray, suppose the person I pray for and have Masses said for IS already in the kingdom?

Well, in that case I’m sure that God, in his infinite wisdom, will give the grace to another needy soul.  No doubt there are plenty of them who need the assistance.

Jesus says to us in this gospel, “This is the will of the one who sent me: that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.”

Jesus wants us all in his kingdom someday, even if we’re not quite ready for heaven at our death and have to make a stopover in purgatory first.

Monsignor Struck used to say that when he died, all he wanted was to get in the “back door” of purgatory.  That’s because Monsignor knew that everyone who enters purgatory—even by slipping through a crack in the back door (so to speak)—eventually goes out the "front door".

And that front door leads directly to the “pearly gates”—with NO stops!  

Today we pray for all those in purgatory right now, that they will get to that front door quickly.  Then, as saints, their powerful prayers will help all of us while we’re here on earth, and also when we are in purgatory—if we end up needing that final purification when we leave this life.