In this month of November, we especially remember our duty in charity to pray for our loved ones who have gone before us through the doorway of death. We do this because of the belief that many souls need further purification after death prior to enjoying the perfect bliss of eternal union with God in heaven. Catholics use the term ‘purgatory’ to describe the state of a soul that is not damned to hell, yet is also not fully ready for heaven. They need further “clean up” in their soul for its character to be perfectly ordered in Christ’s image. Remember that every soul in heaven is a saint—one who is made perfectly Holy by the grace of God. In other words, our salvation is not merely about belief in Jesus intellectually, but about a complete transformation or ‘sanctification’ of our heart, mind, and soul (and after the Resurrection at the end of time, our bodies as well). While we as Catholics are the first to admit that the word ‘Purgatory’ is nowhere to be found in the Bible, this concept of a possible ‘third’ state after we die and the need to pray for the dead is very clear throughout Scripture. It is one that many people ask about, so here are just a few of the most important passages to know:
"For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin" (2 Macc. 12:44-45).
"Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny" (Matt. 5:25-26).
"Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Cor. 3:13-15).
"For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey . . ." (1 Peter 3:18-20).
"But nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven] . . ." (Rev. 21:27).
The last passage mentioned from Revelation is very important to start with in terms of helping people understand the full meaning of what it means to be “saved.” Too many Christians have a very shallow understanding of salvation. The word of God tells us that nothing unclean can enter heaven. No sin allowed. Ever. Forever. It cannot be united to God in any way.
So, logically and practically if I expect to be in heaven, I will not be able to: keep my pet vices that are sinful. I will not be able to have occasional impure thoughts to enjoy. I will not be able to tell the slightest lie. I will not be free to gossip once and a while. I will not be able to continue that grudge against Aunt Mabel for what she did to me 30 years ago. The examples could go on and on and on. Nothing unclean within our character can exist in heaven. All has to be perfectly ordered in love and justice according to the First and greatest Commandment. All relationships have to be reconciled, beginning with God and extending to our neighbor—Every neighbor. Especially our enemies. And there must be a regaining of perfect respect and love for one’s self. Too many live this life carry on in the lie that “I am damaged goods, and thus unlovable.” That is also a part of the reordering we may need in purgatory, recognizing our full value and dignity as a child of God.
There can be lots of “fine tuning” a soul can need prior to perfect union with God. That is why it is wise never to assume our loved ones are already in heaven. They may have died in good graces, certainly going towards heaven, but still in need of purging some aspect of unaddressed sin on their soul. We don’t know. We cannot judge. That is why we pray. When Our Lord tells us that the road that leads to heaven is very narrow and difficult and those who find it are few, it is a scary notion to think few people will be saved. But perhaps one way to interpret that passage is that very few are actually ready for perfect union with God by the time they die on earth. A vast majority are not quite ready. They must continue their transformation in grace in the process of purgatory.
Souls in that state can complete their process much more quickly when we pray for them and have Masses said for them. This practice of praying and offering sacrifice for the dead goes back to the beginning of the Church as well as in the Jewish Tradition before the time of Christ. And not only is it backed up in the Bible, it is backed by common sense logic.
Pray, Pray, Pray for the dead. They appreciate it more than you can imagine!
May the Peace of Christ be with you always!
P.S. Safe Hunting to all going out this week! St. Hubert be with you. I will be gone for the weekdays, but will be back for next weekend.