I was asked to focus this article on the subject of Purgatory. November is the month that the Church celebrates the feasts of All Saints and All Souls Day. We take time to reflect on our relationship with God and the lives of those who have died in Christ. It is not uncommon for our thoughts to also turn toward the subject of Purgatory. At the end of this article, it is my hope to leave you a sense of hope, not fear, as we try to better understand this moment in time after our death and before our entry into eternal happiness with the Blessed Trinity.
As I pondered this topic and scoured for resources, my thoughts wondered to the events that unfolded in our family’s lives. This summer Kathy and I experienced the death of another grandchild. It was the fourth grandchild to die due to a miscarriage. We accompanied our daughter and son-in-law to the hospital, where a DNC was performed. After the procedure the doctor was able to determine the sex of the child. Gathered together, Naming and Committal prayers were prayed. We commended Oliver James into the loving hands of Jesus.
On October 30th a memorial and committal service was held for all of the children that had died through a miscarriage, in the metro CHI Health system. At a very poignant moment, parents were called forward to sprinkle the casket with holy water and to proclaim the name of their child or to simply say Baby and the family’s last name: i.e., Baby Smith. A white rose, symbolizing purity and hope, was handed to each family.
After the ceremony, we gathered as a family in front of the mausoleum, where the casket had been placed. We asked our Lord to watch over Peanut and Baby Thompson, Baby Montagne, and Oliver James Smith. Before our final Amen, we asked them to pray for us.
As the sun drifts southward, the days become shorter, the trees lose their leaves, and frost covers the morning ground, the Church directs us to confront the mystery of death.
On the feasts of All Saints and All Souls Day we are reminded that love is stronger than death that Christ’s death for us means that our departed loved ones, who believed in Christ are very much alive. They may be among those whose lungs breathe the exhilarating air of heaven and whose eyes gaze upon the glory of God. “For eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered the heart and mind of man, what God has planned for those that love him.” 1 Cor. 2:9 In the presence of the Holy Trinity, they help us through their prayers.
The Catholic Church has always been rather reserved in its teaching about the mystery of life after death, including the mystery of purgatory. Christ’s death and resurrection defeated sin and death and won eternal life for us all. But the fruit of Christ’s redemptive work needs to be personally accepted and his transforming grace must become a part of our everyday lives. Each person must say yes to Christ, and yield to the freeing power of his grace which breaks sin’s power and heals sin’s wounds. Everyone is called to actively participate in this process and to renounce all sin, great or small. God, through his church, provides all the means of grace necessary to help in our purification and healing.
What analogy can I use about Purgatory? Imagine you are an unborn child, who has lived in cozy but cramped quarters for nine months. Unexpectedly you begin experiencing tremendous pressure at various intervals, and with head down, you squeeze your way through a narrow opening, leaving the warm, darkness behind.
Suddenly you have to learn to breathe the air of your new world. Your eyes must now adjust to the blinding light and your skin must adjust to much cooler temperatures.
But what if you were born premature? What if your body was not ready to cope in this new world? What if you came forth from the womb with an infection and undeveloped lungs? Would you not have to stay in an incubator in the hospital for a while until the infection was gone and your lungs were developed and strong enough to endure the challenges of this life?
Our deceased loved ones may also be among those whose lungs were not ready for breathing and whose eyes were not ready for the brilliance of the beatific glory of Heaven, whose body carried an infection or imperfection that needed to be eliminated. As parents help their newborn child, we must help our departed loved ones through our prayers. Our loving intercession can hasten the purification and preparation necessary for the full enjoyment of their inheritance as children of God.
Yet, how often do we, as God's children, say a fundamental "yes" to Christ, but drag our feet, clinging to those “small” sins, nursing some attachments to the evil that we’ve supposedly renounced? Purgatory is the process after death where these attachments, the umbilical cord which binds people to the old world, are cut so that people can be free to enter into the life to come. Purgatory is the hospital where the infection of sin is eliminated. It is the incubator where heart, lungs, and vision are made ready for a much greater life.
Purgatory is not a temporary hell. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Purgatory is described as a “state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven.” CCC par. 1031
The Church does not teach that there is physical fire there or that people spend a certain number of years or months there after death, or that everyone but the greatest saints must go there after death.
“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.” Council of Lyons II The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead: “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.” St. John Chrysostom, CCC par. 1032
Unless our departed love ones happen to be canonized saints, we cannot know for certain where they are. So when in doubt, we pray for them. If they happen to need our help, our act of kindness can have a great impact on them. If not, no act of kindness goes unrewarded. Our prayers can still have a great impact on us, exercising and strengthening our love muscles so that we will be more ready to enter into God’s heavenly home when we pass from this life into eternal life with Jesus Christ.
Photo: Life Touch
AUTHOR: DEACON MONTY MONTAGNE
Deacon Monty was ordained to the Diaconate February 14, 1988 for the Diocese of Des Moines. Currently he is assigned to Corpus Christi Parish. Besides the normal “hatch, match and dispatching” (baptisms, weddings and funerals), he serves as an on-call chaplain for Mercy and Creighton Hospitals and is am a volunteer chaplain with the Council Bluffs Fire Department.