In the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Steven Covey, the first habit is “Begin with the end in mind.” Whether we are going to construct a house, build a business, or run an errand, we begin with the end in mind. To not do so would result in a structurally unsound house, a failed business, or an aimless drive.
As Christians, we are admonished by our Church and its Saints to do the same: to begin with the end in mind, and to KEEP it in mind. Liturgically we do this especially in the month of November, which is dedicated to the Poor Souls, and during which the Mass readings speak increasingly of the Last Things as the liturgical year comes to a close.
So perhaps this is an appropriate moment to address a curious development in Catholic sensibilities about Purgatory. A quick internet search or even a casual survey will reveal that many Catholics think little of Purgatory and even believe that Vatican II did away with it. Of course Vatican II did no such thing, but the pervasiveness of the belief that it did should be cause for concern and correction.
On Guam, with our custom of rosaries for the dead, private memorials to deceased relatives, and homage rendered to All Souls Day (no other place makes it a government holiday), it would seem that we are in no danger of forgetting the plight of the Suffering Souls. Yet, funeral announcements today rarely call for prayers for the repose of the soul of the deceased as they once did. More often such announcements include warm phrases such as: “In Celebration of His New Life”, or “In her new life she now joins (a list of relatives)”, and the like.
It is understandable that we wish the best for our loved ones, but given the teaching of our Church on the necessity of purification before one enters Heaven, it is very likely that the dearly departed do not enter immediately into Heaven at the moment of their passing (even if they do die in a state of grace), and are more in need of our intercession than they were on earth since in Purgatory they can do nothing for themselves. Thus they are called the “Poor Souls”.
In other words, that beloved relative whose funeral announcement or eulogy placed him or her immediately in heavenly glory may be left to endure the pains of Purgatory much “longer” than need be because, believing the deceased is already in Heaven, there are few prayers for his or her poor soul. (“Longer” is in quotes because in the afterlife there is no time: “a thousand years is as a day…” 2 Pet 3:8)
The Church does not expound on the nature of this post-death purification other than to quote certain references in Scripture to a “cleansing fire”. But because the Church officially calls the souls in Purgatory the “Church Suffering”, there is no doubt about the condition of the souls who are there.
We also have the accounts of Purgatory from approved apparitions and canonized Saints, which, though not official Church teaching, should nevertheless be taken with great seriousness. St. Margaret Mary, upon being shown Purgatory is said to have said: “If only you knew with what great longing these holy souls yearn for relief from their suffering.”
Earlier this year, on the Feast of St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), Pope Benedict XVI, recounted the Saint’s mystical understanding of the nature of the suffering in Purgatory as an interior fire fueled by the soul’s hatred for one’s own sins.
“Thus for Catherine,” said the Pope, “the soul is aware of God’s immense love and perfect justice; as a consequence, it suffers for not having responded to that love perfectly, and it is precisely the love of God Himself which purifies the soul from the ravages of sin…(and)…only after having been purified of sin can the soul approach God.”
It would seem that at least part of the suffering of the Poor Souls is due to the knowledge that in Purgatory they can do nothing for themselves, which makes the necessity of our intercessions entirely urgent.
To understand how we can assist them in their agonies, it is necessary to understand the Communion of Saints and the “exchange of all good things” between the Church Triumphant (in Heaven), the Church Militant (here on Earth), and the Church Suffering (in Purgatory). See Catechism, paragraph 1475.
Many years ago, as my grandfather grew more aware of his approaching death and the probability of an “extended stay” in Purgatory, an aunt later told me that he had implored his eleven children to never stop praying for him. I intend to tell my children the same.
This column reflects only the views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the staff and management of the Umatuna. It can be commented on and shared via email and social media at www.themassneverends.com Hyperlinks to supporting data are provided on the online version.
Tim Rohr is a contributing writer for the U Matuna Si Yu’os