The Sunday Gospel
Purgation is a process of purification. Purgatory is not specifically mentioned in the Bible but the doctrine of purgatory is a beautiful development which holds in unity two ideas which might seem to be contradictory. Firstly, the doctrine of God’s holiness reminds us of God’s unique otherness, glory and blinding light, far beyond anything we could ever merit. The other doctrine is of God’s loving mercy. The all-holy God whom we could never deserve is also the God of mercy who allows us a process of purification, namely purgatory.
Many of us grew up with a Catechism which told us that purgatory is a place or state of punishment, where some souls suffer for a time before they go to heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1994, under the watchful eye of Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, paints a very different picture. “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” (Catechism 1030). The old Catechism spoke of punishment and suffering. The new Catechism speaks of assured salvation and a therapy of purification.
Preparing for the Beatific Vision
St John gives us this beautiful, uplifting insight into our future. “My dear people, we are already the children of God but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that when it is revealed, we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is. Surely everyone who entertains this hope must purify self, must try to be as pure as Christ” (1 John 3:2-3).
So, what has to be purified? Any way of thinking or behaving contrary to love of God or love of other people. Hands up anyone who thinks you are 100% perfect in charity!
Great spiritual directors down the ages have listed seven deadly roots which produce sins: pride (glorification of me), covetousness, lust, envy, anger, gluttony and sloth (laziness). These poisonous roots produce thoughts and behaviour that are contrary to the light of Christ. They are like cataracts, a sort of fog that gradually grows over the lens of the eye. Nowadays a cataract can be removed in a brief surgery. A lady who had cataracts removed from both eyes told me, “I had forgotten what colour was like”. A person who has allowed sinful behaviour to develop has lost the colourful memory of God’s love and human dignity.
A gradual therapy
Sometimes an unexpected happening, a moment of grace, can be a sudden eye-opener resulting in a conversion of life. But more often than not, the purification of mind and heart is a gradual process. Dante described purgatory as climbing up step by step, beginning with the eradication of pride, until the soul is ravished in love. As one gradually ascends towards God, the cataracts of selfishness, lust, anger, injustice etc. are cleansed from the eye of the soul. The journey to God is completed when the soul is completely cleansed. One of the beatitudes of God’s kingdom states, “Blessed are the pure spirit in for they shall see God”. A person is then like a mirror, receiving and returning a perfect reflection of God. As we heard from St John, “we shall see him as he really is”. This is called the beatific vision.
“I shall be filled when I awake with the sight of your glory, O Lord” (Responsorial Psalm).
Suffering in Purgatory
Is there suffering in purgatory? Yes, but not physical pain or burning in fire. Psychotherapy or physiotherapy cause a stab of pain when the injured part is touched, but this is a step towards healing. “The truth will set you free.” The therapy of God’s love confronts one with the painful truth of how one falls short of perfection. It is the pain you feel when you recognise how much you have hurt others, or when you have allowed selfishness to govern your life, or when you realise how much God loves you and how poorly you have loved in return. That’s the pain of love which is beautiful because it only comes in the vision of divine love. It’s like the reaction of St Peter to the miraculous catch of fish: “Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man”.
“There is no joy, save that in paradise, to be compared with the joy of the souls in purgatory.
“As the rust of sin is more consumed, the soul is more and more open to God’s love.
“Just as a covered object left out in the sun cannot be penetrated by the sun’s rays, in the same way, as the covering of the soul is removed, the soul opens itself fully to the rays of the sun.
“That is why the soul seeks to cast off any and all impediments, so that it can be lifted up to God: and such impediments are the cause of the suffering of the souls in purgatory” (St Catherine of Genoa).
The happiness of Purification
Next question: are the souls in purgatory happy? Yes, intensely happy. As the Catechism says, they are assured of salvation, coming ever closer to the clear vision of God’s glory which “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, even beyond our imagination” (St Paul). Not for one moment would they return to this lesser level of life. Would the butterfly return to its former existence as a slimy grub?
Can we help them
Many people pray for the most forgotten souls in purgatory. But there are no forgotten souls. Has Jesus forgotten them, or Mary? Listen carefully to the prayers at Mass: the entire Church remembers in prayer all who have passed from this life. “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.” Prayers are more authentic when they are backed up by acts of charity, kindness, compassion and forgiveness.
Prayer with the souls in Purgatory
O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water.
So, I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and you glory.
For your love is better than life, my lips will speak your praise. (Psalm 62).
Fr Silvester O’Flynn’s book, Gospel Reflections and Prayers is available to purchase at Columba Books.