November 2, 2011

The Gentle and Hopeful Doctrine of Purgatory

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.


Elizabeth Baehr Lopez said...

Dear Charles:

What and where can I find the basis for your thinking in this homily? I find nothing in scripture to support the idea of purgatory you have written about. Yes, God loves us and desires to draw us to Himself and we can make a decision to trust Him with our lives here and now and live in the fullness of that decision. Paul calls the Christians saints thruout his epistles and we know it is only because of Christ's righteousness that God sees us thru the lense of Christ's death and ressurection as righteous. On the basis of Christ's work on Calvary and our decision to surrender our lives to Him that heaven is attainable.

Love to you and your family.
Elizabeth Baehr Lopez

Brother Charles said...

Often adduced in this regard is the injunction to pray for the dead in Maccabees, a practice which only makes sense, as I say, if there is some manner of continuing journey toward the beatific vision after bodily death.

Kevin Bensema said...

It would seem to me that the "logical possibility" would be that hell could be empty - while perhaps possible in theory, I find that impossible to believe in practice.

Jude's testimony about false teachers (whom he talks about in concrete terms - we can assume these people exist) and the fate reserved for them seems plain enough. Additionally, Christ himself seems to testify that those who will be ultimately denied the kingdom of heaven do indeed exist - how else could Matthew 7:20-23 be read?

-Kevin Bensema

Brother Charles said...

@Kevin, thanks for the comment, which is well-taken.

All I meant to say is that though the Church on earth guarantees with some authority that certain Christian via heroic virtue and intercession received are among the saints in heaven, i.e. through canonization, there is no parallel assertion about anyone having been damned.