The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to purgatory as follows: ‘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).
As a priest who presided at many funerals, I often found myself in a dilemma when preparing the homily. On one hand the intention was there to offer as much support possible to the grieving family and to assure them that their loved ones were now with God and at peace. On the other hand I sometimes felt that this was done at the expense of inviting the community to pray and to make sacrifices of love for all those who have died. The presumption seems to be there that the person who had died was already in heaven. In other words, the doctrine of purgatory gets lost in the middle.
It is certainly not the intention of anyone to upset people whose friends or family members have died. However, the challenge remains not to gloss over our faith in purgatory but rather to rediscover that it is the love of God and not fiery flames that will lead to our purification.
The best teaching on purgatory that I have read was by the late Cardinal Basil Hume in his book, To Be A Pilgrim. There, the Cardinal reflected on the fifth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel where Jesus’ power was responsible for a miraculous catch of fish (cf. Luke 5:1ff). After the miracle, the Gospel tells us that Peter, on seeing what had happened, fell down at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Leave me Lord; for I am a sinful man!’ (5:8). Luke tells us that all his companions were completely awestruck at the catch they made (cf. 5:8 ff).
What was happening here? It seems that Peter, the leader of the apostles and symbolic head of the Church, was completely overcome by the glory of God that the saw before him that it was almost too much. He now stood naked before the goodness and the mercy of God, so much so that it was almost hurting him. He seemed blinded by the purity and brightness of God’s glory before him. His first reaction was to fall on his knees and to say ‘Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man!’. Peter was overwhelmed by a sense of his own inadequacy, sinfulness and human mortality when confronted by the glory of God that had come close to him. He was overcome by a sense of his own unworthiness and was willing to leave the Lord until he was more prepared to share in the beauty and glory that he experienced on that day.
Maybe, just maybe, this is what the mystery of purgatory will be like. At the moment of our death we will be confronted by the glory of God as Peter was that day by the Lake of Gennesaret. Like him, we will willingly depart for a while to another place or state in order to prepare to contemplate the face of God in heaven. What this will be like, we simply do not know. Perhaps on one hand it will be painful to be absent from heaven but also joyful knowing that the time will come when we will be welcomed there by God and the whole company of saints.
The Church gives the name ‘Purgatory’ to this state or place of purification or cleansing. The holy souls in purgatory are still in communion with God which is the source of their greatest joy. So too are they in communion with us and look to us to help them and pray for them. Especially in this month of November, the Church asks us in charity not to forget them but to offer alms, prayers and sacrifices of love on their behalf which support them on their way: ‘Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why should we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them’ (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. In 1 Cor. 41, 5).
‘O Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
I adore you profoundly.
And I offer up to you this day the sacred Body, Blood, Soul and
Divinity of Jesus Christ, in union with all the Masses celebrated throughout the world this day, for the holy souls in purgatory;
For sinners everywhere and sinners in my own home and family. Amen.’
‘Eternal rest grant onto them O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace. Amen.’