Column: Reading from Maccabees foreshadows doctrine on purgatory

Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Halloween conjures up images of ghosts and goblins, skeletons and vampires.

This popular holiday, laced with themes of death, traces its origins to the Celt- ic observance of Samhain, a day during the waning of the year when the dead were believed to visit the living.

In an effort to replace this pagan observance with Christian practices, the church instituted the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, when we commemorate the faithful departed. We honor the saints in heaven and pray for the dead to attain eternal rest.

This Sunday we observe All Souls’ Day, when in particular we pray for the dead, although every Mass we celebrate contains a commemoration of the faithful departed in the eucharistic prayer. We inherited the practice of praying for the dead from our Jewish brothers and sisters, along with other customs and traditions. The reading from 2 Mc 12: 43-46 attests to the practice of praying for the dead. It is one of seven possibilities for Sunday’s first reading, so you may hear it, or another reading, at Mass this Sunday. In any case, it sheds much light on this ancient practice.

Eventually, the doctrine of purgatory developed in order to explain the practice of praying for the dead. This follows the principle of “lex orandi, lex credendi,” or “the law of prayer is the law of faith.” In other words, as we pray, so also we believe. This saying illustrates the close connection between worship and doctrine.

Significantly, while the passage from 2 Maccabees lays the groundwork for the doctrine of purgatory, it very explicitly states a belief in the resurrection of the dead in explaining prayer for the dead: “In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.”

If God has forgiven their sins, why is it still necessary to pray for the dead? Certainly, God’s forgiveness provides the first step toward heaven. At the same time, if we think of sin as a spiritual wound to the soul, then God’s grace needs some time to work its healing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

“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” (CCC, 1030).

The church calls this process of purification “purgatory.” In the past, we sometimes have thought

of purgatory as a kind of torture chamber. Echoing Pope Francis’ image of the church as a field hospital, I prefer to picture purgatory as God’s hospital for wound- ed souls, where God’s grace can heal them, so that they might enjoy heaven fully and completely. The healing continues beyond the grave.

 

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