2 November 2011
The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed has been officially celebrated in the Church for well over a thousand years but the practice of praying for our deceased loved ones and friends dates back to the very earliest days of Christianity. On this All Souls day, we pray for those who have died, who are in purgatory.
It’s a fundamental feature of our faith. We believe in the communion of saints – that community that exists between all members of the Church; the saints in heaven, the believers on earth and the souls in purgatory. Only the body can die; the soul is immortal and death cannot sever the ties that join us.
The soul is very much alive and the love that connects those living with those who have died continues. And so it is only right that we should continue praying in love for those who have died; just as we prayed for them in love when they were alive. And specifically we should prayer for the souls in purgatory. For those who have dead and are in hell, no prayers can help them; and if they are in heaven, they don’t need our prayers. It’s only the souls in purgatory who need our prayers.
The ultimate prayer of course is the Mass in which the communion of saints is most fully expressed and experienced. At the Consecration and at Holy Communion, heaven and earth are united. The saints, together with we the believers and the holy souls in purgatory are all intimately connected and united through Christ on the altar.
Our belief in purgatory is often misunderstood and criticised but quite frankly without purgatory much of our understanding of heaven doesn’t make sense. How many of us really believe that we are worthy enough to share eternal life with God in heaven? I’m sure we all have the desire but if we look deeply into our heart of hearts do we see a soul that reflects perfect love in thought, word and deed? And if we are not models of God’s perfection then surely our very presence in heaven would render the kingdom imperfect.
So there has to be a place or a way for those who have died marked with the sign of faith to purify their souls so that we can be worthy of heaven. That place is purgatory.
Some of us will have pictures of purgatory in our minds of burning torture and torment; perhaps more like a suburb of hell than a suburb of heaven. Fire is often associated with purgatory but I don’t think it’s the flame of a furnace. Rather I think it’s the fire that the two disciples walking to Emmaus felt when Jesus talked to them “Wasn’t it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us.”
The torment and punishment of purgatory is the pain that comes with the understanding of the true meaning of love and the understanding of how inadequately we have loved. The pain is the knowledge that heaven is close at hand but for the time being is out of reach. It’s the pain of having Christ so near and yet still so far. It’s a healing pain that brings with it joy; the joy of knowing that the outcome is nothing short of heaven.
It is an act of love to pray for the faithful departed. We pray for them today in the joyful hope that they soon will be united with Christ in the fullness of heaven and that when the time comes, they in turn will pray for us.