Fr. Rodolfo D. Vásquez

The Church’s annual celebration of All Souls Day affords us the opportunity to meditate upon a doctrine of Purgatory, a doctrine that often confuses and befuddles Catholics who consider this teaching of the Church “outdated” or “mythological”.    Perhaps, the root cause might be our attempt to reconcile two attributes of God, both mercy and justice.     Etymologically, the word “purgatory” is taken from the root Latin word “purgare” which means to “purge” or to “cleanse”.    This purgation is vividly described by the Italian poet Dante in the Purgatorio as a “mountain” of suffering which is a frightening place where souls endure the torments of “purging fires”.     Such a description reminds us of the fires of hell which is why we tend to shy away from the reality of purgatory.   We are left then with some important questions.   How do we reconcile this place of torment with the tender compassionate mercy of God?    How do we understand the concept of purgatory in light of our loved ones whom God has called to himself? 

In his general Wednesday audience of January 12, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the life of St. Catherine of Genoa in which he reminds us that her revelations of purgatory revealed to her that these “fires” are not exterior torments but an “inner fire” that forges the soul into a communion with God.   Consider the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel who walking with the Lord cannot recognize him until the breaking of the bread exclaim, “were not our hearts burning within us?” (Lk. 24:32).  This internal desire for God is an aching, a painful longing that is fueled by love.   Therefore purgatory is best considered not “a place” but a journey, or a process of purifying love.   Here the damage caused by misdirected love now faces the radiance of God’s eternal love that by necessity is a “burning within”.    The soul is making its way through a purgation of love not a torment of horror.

Why is it necessary for some souls to journey through purgatory?    Sin has left residue on the soul and it  “presents itself to God still bound to the desires and sufferings that derive from sin and this makes it impossible to enjoy the beatific vision of God.”  (St. Catherine of Genoa).    In fact when we sin we commit an act of injustice and violate our relationship with God.     God’s mercy absolves us of the guilt of sin through sacramental means, but nonetheless the infraction committed requires restoration.   Restorative justice means that one must make right what one has wronged.   A thief can be forgiven of a theft but in order for justice to be restored the thief must restore that which was stolen.   So too, the soul that commits sins, penance is the restoration of justice on earth, purgatory is the restoration justice after death.   

The repentant sinner, is the beneficiary of God’s mercy, however “still imperfectly purified”, (CCC 1030) his wounded heart must be forged to true love through “the action of divine light on the soul, a light that purifies and raises them to the splendor of the shinning radiance of God.” (St. Catherine of Genoa).   Love is what purges and cleanses their soul.   Love that expresses painful sorrow for sin becomes love that is open to eternal bliss.     Purgatory then can be seen as a state of preparation for heaven.  

While in this preparatory process the “poor” soul is greatly assisted by the Church Militant (or the Church on earth).   We who are in the pilgrimage of life on earth can perform acts of love that benefit the souls in purgatory through works of penance, charity, and prayer, we assist them along their journey.  It is therefore imperative for us as Catholics to pray with devotion for those who have died.   It is a great act of charity to have a Mass intention said for your deceased loved one.   

It is important that we do not fail to do our part to help them along their journey.   None of us can assume that they are already in heaven so for their sake we must make it our commitment to always pray and do penance for them.   As we celebrate the in which we commemorate those who have gone before us and await the eternal bliss of heaven, let us on this All Souls Day pray, fast and do penance for our beloved family and friends.

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