This is a homily for All Souls Day that I wrote a few years ago:
The observance we make today goes by many names. In English we usually call it All Souls Day, but it’s also known as the Day of the Dead, El Día de Los Muertos, or as it’s officially called, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. Whatever we call it, today is a day that the Church sets aside in a particular way to pray and offer Masses for our beloved dead.
When we reflect on our laudable practice of praying for the dead, we can’t get away from talking about purgatory. This is because if our beloved dead have completed their journey to God and find themselves in the fullness of his presence—in the ultimate destiny we call heaven—then their feast day was yesterday on All Saints Day, and it is they who should be praying for us! And if, God forbid, someone finds themselves in hell, then there isn’t any use praying for them anyway. Keep in mind, though, that though the Church has always affirmed hell as a kind of logical possibility for the final destiny of human freedom, she has never claimed or affirmed that any human soul actually went there. Apart from the devil and his angels, hell might be empty.
In the midst of the two final destinies of heaven and hell we affirm the process of purgatory. We are not talking about a place, but a process. Sometimes we have this idea that purgatory is some kind of awful thing with fire and torments and all that. I’m not sure that this is the right approach. I’ll tell you right now, if I die today and I find myself in purgatory, I’ll be overjoyed! Why? Because, brothers and sisters, purgatory has only one exit, and that exit is the eternal joy and peace of the perfect vision of God, the blessed destiny of heaven. To be in purgatory is to be on the way to heaven, and there is nothing more anyone could ever want.
In fact, my friends, purgatory is not about punishment for sinners, but about God’s mercy on those who have already been saved and destined for heaven by their baptism into Christ’s death and Resurrection. The process begins at our baptism. We are freed from sin and configured to the perfect humanity of Christ. In the course of our life from that day on, we are called to grow in faith and holiness. Though we are free from sin by baptism, the wounds and injuries of sin remain in our hearts, minds, and bodies. That’s why we still struggle with selfishness and sin over the course of our baptized life. Now, if at the end of our life, whenever it comes, we have not yet fully freed ourselves from our attachment to the selfishness and sin, God provides a means for us to continue our purification after death. This final process of purification we call purgatory. See how gentle and merciful God is to us! God passionately desires the salvation of every human soul, and even if we don’t succeed in letting God make us perfectly good and holy in this life, he will purify and prepare us for heaven in the life to come.
That’s why I would be overjoyed to find myself in purgatory. I find it very comforting. With all of my sins, I know that even if I don’t succeed in becoming a saint in this life, God will make me one in the life to come. Purgatory is one more sign to us that God’s love and desire to bring us to the perfect joy of himself is stronger than sin. God’s desire to save the world will not be thwarted by something as stupid as my sins.
We don’t know what this process of purification will be like. We don’t know if it takes time—as we know it—or if it happens in an instant awareness of God. But today is a day to pray for those who are in the midst of this final, purifying journey to heaven, that through the communion of saints our prayers might speed them on the way to the final destiny we all look forward to: the eternal joy and peace, the perfectly satisfying vision of God we call heaven.