An Urgently Needed Unforgetting

While teaching a theology class to men in formation for the diaconate, I asked, “When was the last time you heard a homily on Hell?” None of the sixteen could recall. “And Heaven?” Only two. The exchange reminded me of an observation made by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in his book Loving the Church  (Ignatius Press, 1998):

Something very strange has taken place in recent years: Christians have lost touch with heaven. Of the desire for heaven, our “heavenly home,” we hear hardly a word. It is as if Christians have lost the orientation that for centuries defined the direction of our journey. We have forgotten that we are pilgrims and that the goal of our pilgrimage is heaven. Connected with this is another loss: we largely lack the awareness that we are on a dangerous pilgrim path and it is possible for us to miss our goal. To put it bluntly, we do not long for heaven; we take it for granted that we will get there. This diagnosis may be exaggerated, but I am afraid it is essentially true.

What Cardinal Schönborn is talking about is an erosion of eschatological awareness. Eschatology is that branch of theology concerning the “Four Last Things”: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574), “The Four Last Things” (Royal Collection)

For observant Catholics, the month of November is a refresher course in the four last things. On November 1st, All Saints’ Day, we commemorate all the saints without exception, canonized or not, those known to us and those who have no commemoration in the Church’s liturgy—God’s friends and ours, too. Their successful completion of the pilgrimage of faith gives us confidence: they did it, so can we. Just as importantly, we have the gift of their intercession. They now stand before the throne of God and the Lamb, interceding on our behalf. And because they are God’s friends, we know their prayers are efficacious.

On November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, we pray for the souls in Purgatory: those who have left this world in the state of grace, yet have not reached perfect sanctification and therefore are not ready to stand forever in the sight of God.
Last Things

At the end of November or beginning of December comes the liturgical season of Advent, the principal theme of which is the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment that will accompany it.

These stark themes—death, judgment, purification, eternal reward or eternal punishment—should not make us morose or miserable. Scripture teaches us to fear God. Yes, we fear the just punishments—the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell—but the highest form of fear is filial, a reverential fear of displeasing God because He is our loving Father. There have been regrettable caricatures of God as a surly, implacable judge eagerly awaiting the next soul to condemn. But this is surely not the predominant fault of our age, which revolts at even the possibility of divine judgment (except maybe for Hitler and a few others).

A friend recently informed me of the sudden death of our mutual acquaintance, “Rick.” She asked me to pray for Rick’s widow, “Susan,” and their children. “Of course,” I replied, “and for Rick. May God be his reward.” She thanked me and added, “I’ll let the family know know you’re praying for them.” “Please do,” said I, “and for Rick. Tell them I’ll offer a Mass for the repose of his soul.” The next day, my friend sent me a text message: “Susan says she’s very grateful that you will say a Mass for her and the kids.”

I sighed in vexation. “For Rick,” I said audibly. “The Mass is for Rick.” I would probably have felt more indulgent of her ignorance were my friend not Catholic. But she is Catholic—and a practicing one, to boot. Nevertheless, it seems not to have entered her mind that Christian charity obliges us to pray, not only for Rick’s family (that God console them), but for Rick (that God have mercy on his soul). What ever happened to the doctrine of Purgatory and the need to pray for the souls therein?

The doctrine remains, of course, even if awareness of it seems to have vanished, and by no means among lay Catholics only. I once saw a parish bulletin in which the pastor, betraying an appalling misconception, explained the difference between All Saints’ and All Souls’ days by saying that the former commemorates all the canonized saints in Heaven, whereas the latter commemorates all the uncanonized saints in Heaven. I can also recall the frustration I experienced when, to no avail, I tried to explain to another priest why the hymn “For All the Saints,” while perfectly appropriate for All Saints’ Day, is not suitable for funerals or the commemoration of All Souls.

In these people’s minds, the meaning of All Saints’ Day seems to have been thoughtlessly conflated with the meaning of All Souls’ Day. As is often the case when trying to make sense of what Father Louis Bouyer called the “decomposition of Catholicism,” we can point to the catechetical meltdown following the Second Vatican Council. Not altogether unrelated to that problem is the fact that some Catholics find Purgatory an ecumenical embarrassment: Protestants have historically rejected the doctrine and its attendant devotional practices as unbiblical (at best) and (at worst) a negation of the all-sufficient merits of Christ’s atoning Sacrifice.

Poor catechesis and misguided ecumenism post-Vatican II no doubt account in some degree for the Catholic amnesia about Purgatory, but we must also look to changes in liturgical practice. Lex orandi lex credendi, after all: how we worship shapes how we believe. The council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) called for funeral rites to “express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death” (n. 81). Since then, the homilies and the general ethos that pervades the revised funeral rites have often ignored Purgatory and instead canonized the deceased among the saints in Heaven. Vatican II did not intend this distortion, of course, but certain liturgical reforms after the council have facilitated it. The Dies Irae, the centuries-old sequence before the Gospel of the Requiem Mass, with its solemn warning of the “day of wrath” when sins will be exposed and accounted, was expunged; it survives in the modern Roman Rite as an optional hymn for the Liturgy of the Hours on All Souls’ Day. Moreover, the use of white vestments instead of the traditional black amounts to an implicit canonization, given that white, symbolizing purity and joy, is the liturgical color for feasts of Our Lord, Our Lady, the angels, and non-martyr saints (confessors).1 The use of white vestments at funerals and other Masses for the Dead in the postconciliar Roman Rite has been permitted in the United States and some other countries since 1970. Violet and black are likewise permissible. Add to the mix the all-too-frequent homilies that declare the deceased to be enjoying all the glories of Heaven, and it is easy to understand why many Catholics have forgotten about Purgatory or are ignorant of it.

At best, such occasions are examples of understandable, albeit wrongheaded, “pastoral” efforts to comfort grieving loved ones. One can and should console without canonizing, explicitly or implicitly. At worst, they are sentimental exercises that trivialize the most central beliefs of Catholicism. Christian hope clings firmly to salvation—eternal communion with the Holy Trinity and, on that basis, with all the blessed—as a distinct possibility, nay, a “blessed assurance” (in Evangelical parlance), for those who die in God’s grace and friendship. At the same time, it admits that salvation is neither owed us, nor attainable by human effort. One cannot expect God’s mercy without being repentant; nor can one be received into heavenly glory without grace and the holy life that grace inspires and enables.

A proper understanding of Purgatory reveals it to be a great mercy. Salvation essentially involves transformation in Christ, beginning at baptism. At the same time, nothing unholy or impure can enter Heaven (Rev. 21:27). What, then, becomes of those who die in the state of grace but have not been entirely sanctified or fully perfected? Such people do not seem to be ready for a Heaven of perfect love and communion with God, but neither should they be condemned to Hell.

It is this basic theological problem that underpins the doctrine of Purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 1030:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

This doctrine has its roots in Sacred Scripture,2 Several texts, especially 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, Matthew 12:32, and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, seem to envisage a state of man’s soul at death in which he is still under the power of sin, yet not deserving of rejection by God, and consequently they seem to allow for a possible purification from sin and its effects beyond this life. These texts, however, were not the decisive factor in the formation of the doctrine of Purgatory. Here practice largely antedated doctrinal reflection: from earliest times, the Church prayed for those who died in Christ. the Church Fathers, and in the popular conviction (among Jews and Christians alike) that the prayers and alms of the faithful can benefit their beloved dead.3 See Gary A. Anderson’s superb essay, “Is Purgatory Biblical?” in the November 2011 edition of the journal First Things. Click HERE.

Just how is this “purification” accomplished? The process surely involves suffering, as it does here on earth, with the difference that the suffering of the souls in Purgatory is purely spiritual (that is, in the intellect and the will). We know from experience that suffering can purify, that it can detach us from our own likes and dislikes; it can “mortify” (deaden, devitalize) the disordered tendencies which lead us to attach ourselves to false instead of true, finite instead of ultimate goods. The source of this suffering in Purgatory is primarily the soul’s longing for God and its clear understanding that the only reason why it is not with God in Heaven is its own imperfection. The writings of the mystics St. Catherine of Genoa, St. John of the Cross, and Mother Mary of St. Austin suggest that the purification of Purgatory may be analogous to that accomplished by God in the soul of the mystic. God gives the mystic a special understanding of His goodness, holiness, justice, mercy, etc. In the light of this knowledge, the soul sees how distant it is from God as a result of its sins. It is deeply afflicted with sorrow and desires to be like God. Such sorrow and desire gradually reorder and reorient all the spiritual affections of the soul.

To dismiss the doctrine of Purgatory is to undercut a number of other truths: the nature of sin and the effect it causes in man and in his relation to God; the absolute holiness of God and man’s need of complete interior purification and sanctity if he is to enter into that intimate union with God which is his fundamental vocation and beatitude; the interrelationship in the work of salvation of all the members of Christ, whether still on earth or already departed.

The last thing I want to say about Purgatory is that Purgatory is not one of the Last Things. It is not anyone’s final stop, and some bypass it altogether. Baptized children who die before attaining the use of reason and, with it, the capacity to sin, go directly to Heaven. So, too, according to longstanding belief, those who suffer martyrdom for the Faith. And then there are the faithful, though very few probably, who even in this life have completed the process not only of making satisfaction for sin (i.e., of penance), but also, and inseparably, of interior transformation in Christ until they are, in total selflessness and in every fiber of their being, one with the will of God.

In our desire to comfort those who mourn, let’s not pretend that all are saved. To do so is to make a mockery of our moral choices and, more seriously, of the preaching of Christ, who said a good deal more about eternal punishment than one might think at first sight. Even if we have good reason to believe that someone is among the faithful departed and thus bound for glory, we should not assume that his or her suffering in Purgatory will have ended well in time for the funeral eulogy. Instead, let us put grief to constructive use. Through our prayers for the dead, the offering of Masses for their release from Purgatory, and the gaining of indulgences to be applied to them, we petition and secure from God a “quicker”4 The question of God’s relationship to time is vexing and cannot be discussed here. and less painful purification for them and a remission of the debt of punishment they must pay.

Truth be told, only two of the “Four Last Things” are truly last things. The final judgment will end intermediate states and leave only Heaven and Hell. Or, perhaps better put, it will leave only one thing: the transformed universe, “the new heaven and the new earth” (Rev. 21:1), experienced as heaven by the saints and as hell by the damned.

Only in Heaven will we fully recognize how much we owe our salvation to the Church, the communion of saints. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux said, “In heaven there will be no glances of indifference, because all the elect will realize that they owe one another the graces that have won their crown.5 Last Conversations, 15 July 1897 That is a truth worth unforgetting as we enter the month of all saints and all souls.

Originally published on October 31, 2015.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The use of white vestments at funerals and other Masses for the Dead in the postconciliar Roman Rite has been permitted in the United States and some other countries since 1970. Violet and black are likewise permissible.
2. Several texts, especially 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, Matthew 12:32, and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, seem to envisage a state of man’s soul at death in which he is still under the power of sin, yet not deserving of rejection by God, and consequently they seem to allow for a possible purification from sin and its effects beyond this life. These texts, however, were not the decisive factor in the formation of the doctrine of Purgatory. Here practice largely antedated doctrinal reflection: from earliest times, the Church prayed for those who died in Christ.
3. See Gary A. Anderson’s superb essay, “Is Purgatory Biblical?” in the November 2011 edition of the journal First Things. Click HERE.
4. The question of God’s relationship to time is vexing and cannot be discussed here.
5. Last Conversations, 15 July 1897