Death, Judgment and Purgatory

All Souls Day. Wis 3:1-9; Ps 23:1-6; Rom 5:5-11; Jn 6:37-40

This Saturday and Sunday we celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, a reminder that in the Church we are united with souls of those who have already died in God's grace. First, on All Saints Day we celebrate the saints in the glory of heaven and ask them to pray for us. Second, on All Souls Day, we pray for the souls in purgatory. Souls in purgatory have died in God's friendship but have not yet entered heaven. Our prayers and sacrifices, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass, are of great source of mercy for them.

Now it may be helpful to say a few words about the nature of purgatory, because there is some confusion about this subject today. At present, while we are alive, our relationship to God and our moral state can still change. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, "As long as day lasts we must carry out the work of the one who sent me.” But Jesus also warns that “the night will soon be here when no one can work.” (John 9:4) For all of us alive today, there will come a day when the sun will set for us for the last time. We will experience death as have many souls before us, both good and evil. From the moment we die our relationship to God will then be fixed forever. God will judge us and will judge our works and we will enter one of three states. Those who have repented of sin, received God's grace and been purified, like the thief who died beside Christ on the cross, may hope to hear Christ's words, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Those who have died in a state of mortal sin, who have not repented and received God's grace, they also have a place prepared for them. As the Acts of the Apostles strongly hints concerning the fate of Judas, “Judas turned aside, to go to his own place.” (Acts 1:25) There is a heaven and there is a hell, but there is also a third, temporary state. There are many souls who die in God's friendship but who still have some tendency to sin or who have committed sins for which punishment is still due. Such souls cannot yet see God, for “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5). But God has mercy on them by providing a place or state called 'purgatory'. The word 'purgatory' comes from the Latin 'purgare', which means 'to make clean' or 'to purify'. A soul in purgatory is like gold that is still mixed with dross; in purgatory the dross is burned away or cleansed enabling this person to join the angels and the saints in heaven.

How, then, does this teaching affect our lives here and now? Well, one obvious way is that we should see our own lives in the light of eternity. One of the challenges with being a Catholic in the contemporary world is that the world encourages us to forget about eternity and to concentrate only on a succession of fleeting moments. What we should be doing every day, however, is to prepare for eternal life, for “the night will soon be here when no one can work.” And God in his mercy gives us many ways of preparing for eternity, many of which involve surprisingly little response on our part. For just a few words of heartfelt contrition on the cross, for just asking for mercy, Jesus promises the repentant thief eternal life in paradise. Similarly, for ourselves, no one in a state of mortal sin needs to despair, like Judas did. For just a few words of heartfelt contrition in the Sacrament of Confession, for just asking for mercy, we too can receive absolution from a priest and the firm hope of eternal life. Furthermore, we can do great things to help one another to reach heaven, including praying for the souls of those who are in purgatory. But judgment day is coming, and we must use all such opportunities while we still can.

The subject of judgment day brings me to one final topic. Some people think that Christians concentrate too much on heaven to the exclusion of earth. The truth is exactly the opposite; a faithful Christian believes that everything we do in this life is of incalculable importance precisely because of heaven. And because of heaven, it is especially important how we treat one another. There is no such thing as an 'ordinary' person. In the eyes of God, every human being is not a passing creation but possesses an eternal soul. Every human being is beloved by God. Every human being is potentially or actually an adopted child of God. Now this belief in the sanctity of human life has inspired an extraordinary amount of very visible social care. In the United States, I am told, for example, that one in six patients is cared for in a Catholic hospital, and two and a half million children are educated in Catholic schools. But this consistent pro-life stance also inspires us to oppose the culture of death, the materialism that treats human beings as disposable commodities. This culture has led to the deaths of forty-eight million innocent children by abortion in the United States alone over the past few decades. If Catholic voters were to vote consistently for candidates for public office who are opposed to legalized abortion, or even to vote for those less permissive of abortion, as the Church asks of us, this evil practice would quickly come to an end.

Please pray for this great country as voters make a political judgment on 4th November. Let us also pray for another and help one another in preparing for that moment when we face the final, eternal judgment of God.

Father Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 2nd November 2008

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