As All Souls’ Day approaches, homilists may find themselves tiptoeing around discussion of Purgatory. Advising people to pray for their deceased family or friends can be difficult. Many perceive this as an insult to the departed, contending that their loved ones are surely in Heaven already and need no prayers.
Much of this mindset is based on emotions rather than intellectual decisions, and so calls for a tactful, gentle response. Part of the problem, however, arises from misunderstandings about Purgatory. Those unfamiliar with Catholic theology often seem to confuse Purgatory with Hell. Even in Catholic circles, popular assumptions imply that genuinely good people always go straight to Heaven, while Purgatory is for the mediocre souls not quite bad enough for Hell. Another phrasing of this idea is that, to compare these states to school grades, Heaven is an A, Purgatory a C, and Hell an F.
None of this is even remotely true.
Purgatory vs. Hell
To start, the distinction between Purgatory and Hell is essential. The latter is the permanent state of souls who have rejected God. The former is a transition for souls who have, at least implicitly, chosen Him, but whose love still needs purifying.
This contrast is manifold. First, Hell is an eternal state, while Purgatory is a transitional one. More importantly, though, far from having anything to do with Hell, Purgatory is closely associated with Heaven. It’s “like Heaven’s bathroom,” as my mother told me when I was a child. Souls in Purgatory might be compared to children who come obediently when called to dinner, but have not yet washed their hands. A child in the bathroom may not yet be at the table, but he is certainly in the house.
St. John Paul II once explained in a General Audience, “Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God but are immersed in the love of Christ. Neither are they separated from the saints in heaven, who already enjoy the fullness of eternal life, nor from us on earth, who continue on our pilgrim journey to the Father’s house. We all remain united in the Mystical Body of Christ.” The souls in Purgatory are all saved and on their way to Heaven, much more decidedly so than anyone on Earth, as souls on Earth can still sin. While these souls do not yet enjoy the vision of God, they are always coming closer to it and constantly long for it—which we should all be doing.
A literary illustration of this doctrine appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the Inferno, the souls are all self-pitying and bitter toward God, and egotistically ask Dante to spread their fame when he returns to Earth. As soon as he reaches Purgatory, everything is different. Every soul to whom he speaks replies with peace and charity. No one has any complaints, despite their arduous penances; in fact, they are eager to do these penances, because they will thereby become ready to see God. If they ask to be remembered on Earth, they only want it so that their families and friends will pray for them.
Some writers remind us that, because nothing matters when compared to salvation, the souls in Purgatory have a joy better than anything on Earth, even amidst their sufferings. One of these authors, Father Frederick Faber, put it thus: “I would rather occupy one of the last places in that sojourn of security than possess all the uncertain and deceiving joys of this world!”
“No one is good but God alone”
But even assuming that one knows all the correct doctrinal responses about the nature of Purgatory, it can still be tempting to “canonize” the deceased, especially when one’s loved ones were truly devout. One might wonder what so-and-so could possibly have to atone for, after such a pure life. How, one asks, could God find fault with my saintly mother or my innocent child?
The question is very natural, but here we must remember again that God does not see as man sees. A soul must be free of even the tiniest imperfections before entering Heaven. We should not picture God demanding this in a stern or fussing sort of way, like an unpleasant teacher punishing diligent students for slight mistakes. Rather, He wants us to enter His joy, to share in His own life forever, and we truly cannot do so before being completely purified. God’s life, the life of the Trinity, is perfect love. How could a creature still bearing a trace of sin join in that life? Surely, in the words of St. Augustine, “To think highly of our deceased is charity, but to pray for them is a charity greater, wiser, surer.”
Perhaps we tend to lack perspective on what we are and who God is. Jesus Himself made this point during His life: when the rich young man hailed Him as “Good Teacher,” His immediate response was, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19). Only God is good, i.e. has total goodness in his very nature. In His generosity, He freely gave His creatures various shares of goodness. Thus, even unfallen Adam could not claim to deserve anything from God, since all his innocence and holiness were gifts from his Creator. How much less can fallen man assert any rights before the Lord? How can we demand the Beatific Vision, for ourselves or anyone else?
Of course, we aren’t Calvinists. The grace that Jesus’ death and Resurrection won for us, which we receive through the Sacraments, really does cleanse us and enable us to merit—but only because God’s gracious love has willed it so. As He has arranged things, we can have a confident hope that we and those we love will see Him in Heaven; but we must hope with humble gratitude, remembering that God’s entire plan of salvation is pure gift. If we—I, you, or anyone else—need to undergo some purification before we’re ready to enjoy this unfathomable gift, who’s to complain?
After all, even the best of us need cleansing. The saints invariably understand this best. A journalist once remarked to St. Teresa of Calcutta, “God must be very demanding if you have to go to confession.” She replied simply, “Your own child sometimes does something wrong. What happens when your child comes to you and says, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry’? What do you do? You put both of your arms around your child and kiss him . . . God does the same thing. He loves you tenderly.” The saint’s point is that even a soul who loves God deeply, like a child who loves his father, commits faults and needs to repent.
And God forgives the repentant soul. Here, perhaps, is another easy misunderstanding of Purgatory. The souls waiting there are not there because God holds grudges against them or wants them to be punished. They are there because they still need something more than forgiveness. Because sin does damage to the sinner, cleansing and healing are also necessary. St. Teresa understood this too: “Our souls should be like a transparent crystal through which God can be perceived. Our crystal is sometimes covered with dirt and dust . . . God will help us to remove that dust, as long as we allow Him to.” This is what happens in Purgatory. Even if your departed loved ones were as holy as Mother Teresa, you can pray for them without demeaning them.
To clarify, all this is not to say that no one goes straight to Heaven. Dr. Hubert van Dijk, O.R.C., who translated St. Therese of Lisieux’s teaching on this point, explains, “Everyone receives enough graces in order to go straight to God after passing the trials on earth.” Purgatory is necessary because souls may not respond as they should to all these graces; but when they do, they may avoid it altogether. Heaven is the goal—no one should be aiming for Purgatory. The point is that we should not presume that any given person, even a holy person, was completely pure at death and has no need of our prayers. After all, if the soul in question is in Heaven already, God will accept our prayers for other souls. Nothing is wasted with Him.
Insult or Privilege?
If we understand Purgatory as a state of cleaning, healing, being fixed and becoming ready for the greatest joy, we will never see going there as an insult, but a blessing, a privilege. Certainly, the sins that necessitate it are evil, but given that we commit them, the existence of Purgatory is another of God’s great kindnesses. To regard it as bad is like regarding hospitals as bad because we would rather not be sick or injured.
If we are glad for people to be cured of physical afflictions, how much happier should we be for them to be rescued from spiritual ailments? If, as we Catholics believe, there is no worse misery than sin, doesn’t it follow that being freed from sin is a tremendous joy?
Wouldn’t it be a much worse pain to have corruption in one’s soul for eternity? C. S. Lewis imagines a conversation between God and the soul if there were no Purgatory: “Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know.’ ‘Even so, sir.’” We need suffering to be purified, but the end result is well worth it.
Earlier in the same passage, Lewis mentions a scene in Newman’s “Dream of Gerontius,” where a saved soul, before God’s throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed, and not because it led an impious life. So far as we can tell, this soul loved God and was faithful to Him. Its plea contains no trace of groveling or self-deprecation. Rather, it longs to be ready “to see Him in the truth of everlasting day.” Standing before God, seeing all things as He sees them, the soul that has chosen Him cannot bear to see in itself anything displeasing to Him. It no longer wants anything except to be perfectly united with Him, and to rid itself of anything that would be an obstacle to that union.
Newman’s poem also describes Purgatory as a blessed place: it is called “the golden prison” and the soul anticipates being “motionless and happy in my pain, / Lone, not forlorn,” because it rejoices to be purified. Yes, it is best not to need this purification, but the possibility of it is great kindness for us, and for souls who die with even slight sins to expiate, to receive this treatment is a privilege.
Now I’ve talked enough about the souls in Purgatory; let’s get to work praying for them. This November 2, pray for these souls, especially for your deceased relatives and friends and for those who have no one praying for them. If charity alone didn’t impel us to do so, the faithful departed are grateful friends, and those whom you help out of Purgatory will pray for you in turn. Right now, before doing anything else, join me in a quick prayer for our waiting brethren:
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord; and may light perpetual shine upon them. May their souls rest in peace. Amen.