My husband and I find our children sometimes like to play a certain game. I’m not sure exactly what it is called, but its main premise is to dump as many toys as possible onto the floor. I knew they were in the midst of this game one day when I overheard our son say, “Mom’s not going to like this.”
Oh, was he right. I entered the bedroom to find the floor scattered with dinosaurs, baseball guys, duplos blocks, and a mishmash of game pieces.
I was—justifiably—angry. The children know we have certain rules in our house and intentionally making a mess (for the sake of making a mess) is definitely a violation of those rules. The kids knew they were wrong and promptly said they were sorry. I forgave them, of course.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. They were forgiven, yes. Yet, the mess remained. It still had to be cleaned up and fixed.
Something similar happens to our souls.
When we go to the sacrament of Confession, God always forgives us our sins, no matter how grave. Our eternal punishment is removed and we are restored to right relationship with our God. But, like the mess in the bedroom, sin leaves a kind of mess in our souls. The sins are forgiven, but there is still work that needs to be done.
For one thing, there may still remain the tendency or desire to commit the same sinful act. Sins leave the soul lacking in love. And then there is need for correction. I forgave our children for the mess they made, but they had a punishment: clean it up! We, too, as God’s children receive temporal punishment for our sins. This is just and it is also love. Loving discipline directs one to what is good. Just like a child, we also need to be corrected through punishment when we willingly and knowingly disobey our Father.
We must be purified. Pope Benedict XVI said, “Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table in the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing has happened.”
The question is: when will we be purified? Sometimes it is in this life. Other times, it is in the next.
Let me explain. On November 1, we celebrate All Saints Day, a joyful occasion when we remember and thank God for our friends in heaven (the Church Triumphant). The saints are our heroes: they’ve won the race and are now cheering us on. They have been purified: there is no mess in their souls!
If you look at the lives of the saints, you’ll find a common theme running through their varied life stories. Whether the saint be a martyr from the fourth century, a wife and mother, or a prisoner at Auschwitz, they all share a commonality: suffering. More than miracles or mystical prayer, the shared experience of these souls in heaven is that they all suffered. It wasn't something they had to unfortunately "deal with" during their day, an untimely obstacle along the rosy path of life.
No, they embraced the suffering. They united their suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross—some, like St. Padre Pio, to the point of even bearing Christ's wounds. They allowed that suffering to purify them. It was what made them saints!
They chose to be purified now, here, on earth. Through suffering they became detached from all sin and made reparation for any damage caused by their previous sins. Thus their love for God was so pure that, at the moment of their death, they entered directly into heaven.
Then we come to November 2: All Souls Day. This is the day when we especially pray for the souls who were not fully purified here on earth. These are the souls in Purgatory, a word that itself means "purifying." The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that Purgatory is a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”
The Church has always upheld its teaching on Purgatory and we find support in sacred Scripture for this doctrine. For example, in the Old Testament we read, "Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out ... Thus made atonement for the dead that they might be free from sin” (2 Maccabees, 12:26, 32).
The Church Fathers also professed belief in Purgatory. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, relates how his mother, St. Monica, asked him to pray for her soul after death. She said to him, "Lay this body anywhere at all. The care of it must not trouble you. This only I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you are."
Purgatory is God's hospital for souls. It works just like a hospital does here on earth. A patient in a hospital realizes that he or she is sick and needs a cure. He or she recognizes that a cure will come only through suffering—surgery or a medical procedure. The infirm person willingly proceeds with the suffering, knowing that it is for his or her ultimate good and in hope for full health one day. Similarly, the souls in Purgatory (the Church Suffering) await the ultimate cure: the bliss that is the Beatific Vision. Father Benedict Groeschel writes in his book After This Life that Purgatory “heals it [our sinfulness], cleansing the human soul, gently and lovingly making us into the beings God wants us to be.”
St. Catherine of Genoa says of Purgatory,
"The Almighty is so pure, however, that if a person is conscious of the least trace of imperfection and at the same time understands that Purgatory is ordained to do away with such impediments, the soul enters this place of purification glad to accept so great a mercy of God. The worst suffering of these suffering souls is to have sinned against divine Goodness and not to have been purified in this life."
Joyfully, there is only one door out of Purgatory and that is the door into heaven. But until the purification is complete, the soul will experience a suffering "more painful than anything a man can suffer in this life" (St. Augustine). The souls in Purgatory suffer because they see so clearly the evil of their sins and sin's effects. They seek the peak of the mountain, but must make the painful ascent, shedding their sins and sinful desires as they rise to the top.
While being purified, these holy souls in Purgatory cannot earn merit for good works. They cannot hasten their ascent to the top.
This is a teaching we affirm at every Mass when, following the consecration, the priest prays in the Second Eucharistic Prayer, "Remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again; bring them and all the departed into the light of your presence."
Who are these "brothers and sisters" for whom we pray? Not the saints in heaven—prayer will not help them, as they have reached eternal happiness. Not the souls in hell—prayer will not help them, as their unrepentant sins have damned them to eternal punishment. We pray for the souls in Purgatory, who were not purified here on earth and must therefore be purified later.
Then we come to a somber realization. We are each given suffering, every day, in a myriad of shapes and sizes. How will we use that suffering? Will we squander it? Or will we use it for the atonement of and reparation for our sins? Will we be like the saints who embraced their suffering and were purified through it?
That's what we can do now. C.S. Lewis—in The Great Divorce— said that we begin to choose—today!—our eternal destination. Heaven and hell begin on earth, through the decisions we make about how to live our life. We are the Church Militant, journeying toward our goal of Heaven, like soldiers marching onward to victory.
Right now we can allow our suffering to purify us.
And right now we can help those in Purgatory.
Remember, they cannot help themselves: they cannot hasten their ascent to the heavenly mountain. But we can! Through our prayers and by offering up our sufferings, we can hasten their way to heaven.
We all have loved ones who have died. Don't assume that they are in heaven because, if they are in Purgatory, they need your help. Offering our suffering, our prayers, our work, any difficulties in this life is a way to show these departed ones our love. My own family has gotten into the habit of praying for the souls in Purgatory immediately after we say our grace before each meal. We pray: “And may the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
Also consider having a Mass offered for someone who has died. Mass is the highest form of prayer and worship here on earth, so there are many graces that flow from this practice. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “From the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.”
We can (and should) remember the souls in Purgatory every day, but most especially now, in the days following All Soul's Day.
Each day from November 1 until November 9 we can gain a plenary indulgence for a soul in Purgatory. An indulgence is the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. The Church has an infinite treasury of merit (good works) “stored” up, so to speak. These merits are from Christ’s Passion and death, as well as the good works of our Blessed Mother and the saints. So an indulgence is the exchange of spiritual goods from the treasury of the Church to a particular soul—in this case, the indulgence could be applied to a soul in Purgatory. A plenary indulgence is extremely powerful: it removes all temporal punishment due to sin, allowing a soul in Purgatory to go to heaven!
In order to obtain this plenary indulgence, one must:
- Visit a cemetery (any cemetery will do; it need not be the one where your loved one is buried).
- Say a prayer for the particular soul for whom you wish to gain the indulgence.
- Attend Mass the same day.
- Go to confession within 20 days of the cemetery visit.
- Have a spirit of detachment from all sin.
- Pray an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the intentions of the Pope.
Now, through God's grace, we can atone for our sins and perfect our love for God.
Now we can aid the suffering souls in Purgatory. They will be so grateful to you! As Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “As we enter Heaven, we will see them so many of them, coming towards us and thanking us. We will ask who they are and they will say: ‘A poor soul you prayed for in Purgatory!’”
Now we can try to bypass Purgatory and aim for heaven, where we will see God face-to-face.
Holy Mary, Refuge of Sinners, grant us the strength and grace of God to act "now" so that "later" will find us adoring God in heaven, in the company of all the angels and saints!
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May the souls of the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
~ Cassandra Spellman