by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The church’s teaching on purgatory has not been given sufficient emphasis in our catechesis in recent years.
This teaching has its roots in the Old Testament and was evident in the practice of the Christian community from its earliest days. The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the following succinct description of this ancient belief: “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” (no. 1030).
Sometimes at funerals today, there is a tendency to “canonize” the one who has died. Certainly it is good, at the time of the death of a loved one, to reflect upon the many ways in which we saw God’s reflection in the life of our deceased relative or friend. At the same time, we know that our loved one was not perfect. Despite their many good qualities, they also had their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
In his writings, Pope Benedict describes the three possibilities for each one of us at the time of death: “There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred, and have suppressed all love within themselves. . . . In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: This is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors — people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfillment what they already are. Yet, we know from experience that neither case is normal human life. For the great majority of people –— we may suppose — there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil — much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly reemerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.”
Permit me to personalize this teaching. I believe in the triune God with all my heart. I have given my life to proclaiming the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Daily I strive to imitate Jesus by trying to live a virtuous life. Yet, I know that if I should die tonight, there is still much selfishness, pride, and deceit residing in my heart.
When I die, I would prefer that people not attempt to canonize me with kind words of praise, but instead I hope that many will pray for me. Purgatory is a beautiful element of our Catholic faith. It is an acknowledgment that God’s mercy for us reaches beyond the grave. God desires to purify our hearts — not to punish us, but to prepare us to be able to experience the fullness of life he desires for us. Purgatory is an expression of the mercy of God removing from us our lingering vices and, at the same time, increasing the capacity of our hearts, preparing us to enjoy the abundant life the Lord has prepared for us.
Pope Benedict describes the importance and the need for our teaching on purgatory in this way:
“I would go so far as to say that if there was no purgatory, then we would have to invent it, for who would dare say of himself that he was able to stand directly before God. And yet we don’t want to be, to use an image from Scripture, ‘a pot that turned out wrong,’ that has to be thrown away; we want to be able to be put right. Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together again. That he can cleanse us in such a way that we are able to be with him and can stand there in the fullness of life. Purgatory strips off from one person what is unbearable and from another the inability to bear certain things, so that in each of them a pure heart is revealed, and we can see that we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being.”
What is more, we believe that while we are on earth, God makes it possible for us to assist with our prayers those whom he is liberating from disordered attachments and selfishness after death.
The exact nature of this purification, we do not know. Yet, we know that such purifications in this world do not happen without some pain and strife.
In our prayers for the dead, God allows us to love, in a meaningful way, those who have died. In prayer we can accompany them during this process of purification and in God’s economy somehow we are able to lighten their burden. We might compare it, in this world, to a friend helping us do some laborious and tedious task. Not only does our friend lessen our amount of labor, but their presence is a comfort and a joy.
Sometimes, particularly when a friend or family member dies very suddenly, we can regret that we failed to communicate fully our love and affection for them. One of the great comforts of our Christian faith is that death is not an absolute barrier between those of us living in this world and those who have passed from this world. In prayer, our lives and their lives can continue to touch. Our prayers for our friends and relatives who have died are the most beautiful and powerful expression of love that we are able to give to them.
There are many good ways to keep the memory of those who have died. Displaying photos or cherishing mementos of those who have died are common ways that we attempt to concretize the ties that bind us beyond death. Imitating the virtues and maintaining family traditions associated with our loved ones are also beautiful ways of keeping their memory.
Yet, the most important single act we can do for those who have died is to pray for them.