Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
The month of November is dedicated to the one aspect of the Catholic Church that is too often neglected: the Church Suffering. The one Church is composed of three inter-related aspects: the Church Triumphant (the saints in heaven), the Church Militant (the faithful alive in this world marching daily toward their salvation), and the holy souls in Purgatory, known as the Church Suffering. These souls are guaranteed that they will see the full glory of God with all the saints one day, but in the meantime, they suffer because they are not yet cleansed of their attachments to sin and this world. Nothing unclean in the slightest can be in the presence of God and live. Therefore, as one of God’s greatest acts of mercy, He allows the purification of our soul after death because, in reality, hardly anyone would be able to enter eternally into God’s glory if it depended on our holiness at the moment of our death exclusively.
One of the most popular, but wholly incorrect, statements today involves making the confident claim after the death of a loved one that, “I know he or she is in heaven right now.” To put it bluntly: No, you don’t anything of the sort. Such a statement is often based on misconceptions where the depth of knowledge of faith is limited to mere sentimentality because it is much easier to believe that everyone goes to heaven immediately at death. The reason behind saying, “I know that he is in heaven right now,” is a lack of knowledge of the faith, and this is never more evident today than when family members refuse to have a Catholic Mass for life-long, faithful Catholics. Unfortunately, this lack of respect for the deceased is becoming more and more prevalent.
The fact is that no one can declare definitively that a person is eternally blessed in heaven unless and only if the Catholic Church investigates the person’s life and miracles associated after death and thereby makes a declaration that the soul is, in fact, in heaven with God interceding on our behalf. No one can simply “feel” that a person is in heaven. This idea says much more about the person making that statement than about the soul that has gone to the next stage of life.
What is the next stage of life, therefore? Most people will not enter directly into heaven at the moment of death. An honest and humble person recognizes that truth. If a person were honest, he would admit that attachments to this world remain a life-long struggle. The race for eternal life is not won yet. Jesus Himself gives us the image of Purgatory (although the Gospels do not use that precise word for it) in the parable of the Vigilant and Faithful Servants (Luke 12: 35-48). The master of the household leaves and then returns later to knock on the door and be let into the house. The vigilant servants who open the door and let him in are rewarded. However, the unfaithful servants meet another destiny. Jesus explains His parable to the disciples saying, “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12: 47-48). The parable includes three punishments, in fact. The servants who mistreat the other servants in the house by taking advantage of his master’s delay will be assigned a place with the unfaithful—in other words, to hell (Luke 12: 46). The next group of servants receives the severe beating and then the last group receives a lesser beating. Since this parable concerns our eternal life with God, Jesus tells us that there are punishments we receive based on our infidelity to God when He comes to knock at our door, as it were; this concerns the particular judgement we will all experience at the moment of death when we will have to give an accounting of our life before Jesus Himself. How well were we vigilant seeking His presence every day in our life?
We are greatly blessed by God’s abundant mercy, thankfully. Even though our age relies upon its own presumption whereby a person assumes in his own mind he can rely on God’s mercy and forgiveness extended to him automatically at the time of death with no response of conversion or change of mind or behavior toward God during his life, we ought to reject such popular, false ideas (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2092). St. Gregory the Great (590-604) wrote in his Dialogues about a cleansing fire that is different from the fires of hell, and he based his teaching on 1 Corinthians 3 and 1 Peter 1. Pope St. Gregory wrote that “for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1031, with note no. 606). The Jews were also familiar with praying for the dead so that they would be loosed of their sins (see 2 Maccabees 12:46).
Most importantly, the Church from her beginning always prayed for the dead in their pilgrimage toward eternal life with God, as seen in the ancient Roman Canon (now Eucharistic Prayer I). In this Prayer, there is a commemoration of the faithful departed hoping that they will enjoy “a place of refreshment, light, and peace.” This section of the Canon is separate and distinct from the commemoration of the martyr saints in glory. The Church would not be praying for such a group to enjoy eternal light if she believed that everyone automatically were in heaven upon death.
One of the most charitable works of mercy, therefore, that we offer the holy souls in Purgatory is to have Masses said for them. In fact, to pray for the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy. We should never forget our loved ones by simply presuming that they are in heavenly glory. The Mass offered for these souls alleviates their suffering. The holy souls in Purgatory retain their connections with us even though we cannot experience them in the same manner when they were alive in the body. Nevertheless, the holy souls can and do pray for us. They pray for our faithful conversion to God in this life so that the punishments of Purgatory will be lessened and alleviated now in this life by our sacrifices and works of penance and charity. May we never forget the souls in Purgatory, and especially during this month of November, may we honor the souls of the Church Suffering by praying for them, sacrificing for their purification, and remembering their intentions by gaining indulgences for them each day.
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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