In his conclusion of the general audience of 31 October 2018 Pope Francis, while greeting the Polish-speaking pilgrims, said: “Let us not forget, however, that so many deceased also await our spiritual support. Let us remember them in our prayers, together with Mary, ‘Queen of all Saints,’ asking that they be welcomed into the ranks of the elect in heaven”.
After jubilantly celebrating the ones who are counted among the elect in Heaven, Mother Church fervently prays for those who are being purified in purgatory so that they too may enter the Heavenly glory. In the Roman Martyrology, that is the official martyrology of the Catholic Church, we find: “On this day (November 2) is observed the commemoration of the faithful departed, in which our common and pious Mother the Church, immediately after having endeavored to celebrate by worthy praise all her children who already rejoice in heaven, strives to aid by her powerful intercession with Christ, her Lord and Spouse, all those who still groan in purgatory, so that they may join as soon as possible the inhabitants of the heavenly city.”
In the Preface of the Mass for All Souls we read: “In him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of certain death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling is laid aside, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven”. What really strikes my spirit in this beautiful liturgical Preface is that purgatory offers the sure hope of a glorified immortality. After the necessary cleansing the soul joyfully enters the heavenly eternal banquet.
In his encyclical, which speaks about Christian hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI beautifully explains the doctrine of purgatory in the following way:
“Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love” (no.47).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church quite explicitly says that the souls in purgatory can have access to the beatific vision in heaven primarily through the sacrifice of the altar, the Mass. “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (no.1032). The prayer over the eucharistic gifts of bread and wine, which is prayed at the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, gives a thorough explanation on why the sacrifice of the altar, the Mass, greatly benefits the souls who are being purified in purgatory. “By this sacrifice, merciful God, wash away in the blood of Christ the sins of our departed brothers and sisters. You cleansed them once in the water of baptism; in your mercy grant them pardon and eternal rest”.
In view of this dogmatic and liturgical teaching, one can more appreciate popular Christian piety, which is essentially charity in action, concerning the souls in Purgatory. I am presently thinking of the wonderful prayer of St. Gertrude the Great, which she received from Our Lord himself, with the promise that each time this prayer is prayed 1,000 souls are immediately released from Purgatory, this place of torment.
“Eternal Father I offer you the most precious blood of your divine son Jesus, in union with all the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, sinners in the Universal Church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.”
For those of us who are still septic and, perhaps, bitterly sarcastic about purgatory and the suffering the souls in it are constantly enduring, let us revisit what St. Catherine of Genoa, the Italian mystic known for her vision of this state, herself recounts in her Treatise on Purgatory:
“The great importance of Purgatory, neither mind can conceive nor tongue describe. I see only that its pains are as great as those of hell; and yet I see that a soul, stained with the slightest fault, receiving this mercy, counts its pains as naught in comparison with this hindrance to her love. And I know that the greatest misery of the souls in Purgatory is to behold in themselves aught that displeases God, and to discover that, in spite of his goodness, they had consented to it. And this is because, being in the state of grace, they see the reality and the importance of the impediments which hinder their approach to God” (chpt. viii)
Catherine’s words empower us first to avoid from going to the suffering state of Purgatory. In fact, as the saints and even people who are open to God’s grace regularly suggest to me, better making my Purgatory on earth than the one that awaits me beyond my bodily death. In a very inspirational book entitled How to Avoid Purgatory, Fr. Paul O’Sullivan provides the subsequent suggestions as to how to avoid Purgatory altogether: (1) avoiding sin; (2) doing penance; (3) accepting suffering; (4) frequent confession and Communion; (5) praying with faith and perseverance; (6) preparing for one’s death with the following prayer: “Eternal Father, from this day forward, I accept with a joyful and resigned heart the death it will please You to send me, with all its pains and sufferings;” and (7) gaining indulgences.
Secondly, both the necessity and the terrific character of Purgatory make us more responsible in offering countless Masses for the release of the souls who are still suffering in this very painful state. That is why Saint John Mary Vianney, the holy Curé of Ars, said: “Consider then…the magnitude of these sufferings which the souls in Purgatory endure; and the means which we have of mitigating them: our prayers, our good works, and, above all, the holy sacrifice of the Mass”.
Let us show Christ’s infinite love and solidarity for these brothers and sisters who are suffering in Purgatory by offering them Masses so that they can immediately enter the Heavenly Jerusalem. These persons, which can easily be our very loved ones, are eagerly waiting for our prayers and sacrifices!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap