If Purgatory did not exist, then hope would move us to invent it!
Forgiveness means being given a second chance, and I have needed to be forgiven a lot. I think that is why I have such a deep devotion to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. For “Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together again” (J. Ratzinger).
What the Church teaches about purgatory
Sins produce residual effects, just as a wound leaves a scar. “Every sin, even venial sin, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures” and we need to be purified “from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin” (CCC1472). If that purification does not take place here on earth for those who die in God’s grace and friendship, it happens after death in the state called Purgatory. These “elect” definitely are assured of eternal salvation, but they must undergo a purification by which they “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).
The 15th-century Council of Florence teaches:
“If those who are truly penitent depart from this life in the charity of God before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for their sins of commission and omission, their souls are cleansed by purgatorial sufferings after death.”
For we cannot—and would not want to—be received into God’s intimacy in heaven without first having been purified of all the remanent consequences of personal sin. Purgatory is an inward process of transformation by which a still imperfectly purified soul becomes capable of Christ and of holy union with the communion of saints. “Purgatory is the immense hope making it possible for the human act, which has prevented human liberty from bearing fruit, to be able to recover itself in God and find itself in full light” (M. Zundel).
The human need for purgatory
And that hope is engrained in our very nature. In his encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict XVI underscores this:
A distinguishing mark of Christians [is] the fact that they have a future: … they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well (Saved in Hope #2).
The feast of All Souls celebrates the certainty that there is offered the holy souls—and ourselves—a future chance of renewal. And we cannot do without it. For as St Catherine of Genoa points out in her classic Treatise on Purgatory:
When the soul is separated from the body, if it does not find itself as pure as it was when it was created, it flings itself into Purgatory of its own accord, seeing itself hindered in a way that cannot be remedied by any other means. If it did not find such provision made for removing the hindrance, a hell far worse than Purgatory would come into being for it.
Fr. Maurice Zundel reflects in one of his writings: “I believe that the Blood of the New Covenant gushes forth on all souls who are waiting for salvation because nothing is over with as long as man is not definitively closed to God.” We can go so far as to say that if Purgatory did not exist, then “hope would move us to invent it” (J. Ratzinger).
The writer Ivan Turgenev understood this. We enter a small village graveyard in his novel Fathers and Sons—a place impossibly depressing: it “presents a wretched appearance … overgrown … grey wooden crosses lie fallen and rotting … stone slabs are all displaced, as though someone were pushing them up from behind.” But one grave is pristine, “untouched by man, untrampled by beast, only the birds perch upon it and sing at daybreak. An iron railing runs round it.”
To this grave “two quite feeble old people—a husband and wife” often come to visit. “Supporting one another, they move to it with heavy steps; they go up to the railing, fall down, and remain on their knees, and long and bitterly they weep, and yearn and intently gaze at the dumb stone, under which their son is lying; they exchange some brief word, wipe away the dust from the stone, set straight a branch of a fir tree, and pray again, and cannot tear themselves from this place, where they seem to be nearer to their son.”
Then Turgenev asks:
Can it be that their prayers, their tears are fruitless? Can it be that love, sacred, devoted love, is not all-powerful? Oh, no! However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over tell us not of eternal peace alone; they tell us too of eternal reconciliation and of life without end.
Devotion to the Holy Souls
Our love can reach into the afterlife. “Our lives are involved with one another … even after death … my prayer for [another] can play a small part in their purification (Saved In Hope #48). “Suffrages of the living—namely, the sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, alms-deeds, and other works of piety—are profitable to those departed souls for the relief of their sufferings” (Council of Florence). Which is why in Dante’s Divine Comedy, a purgatory-bound soul pleas, “Prayer could help me, if a heart God’s love has filled with grace should offer it.” To which Dante declares, “Surely, we should help those souls grow clear of time’s deep stain, that each at last may issue spotless and weightless to his starry sphere.”
Devout prayer for the Holy Souls “brings to God’s remembrance that they died in love, and that their only refuge is in his Passion and mercy” (Bl. John of Ruysbroeck). It cannot be doubted, says St. Augustine, that the prayers of the Church for the Holy Souls move God to treat them with more clemency than their sins deserve. In fact, so comprehensive is devotion to the Holy Souls that, as St. Francis de Sales asserts, “to assist the souls in Purgatory is to practice in a most sublime manner all the works of mercy at once.”
Let us offer up all our trials and sufferings for the good of the Holy Souls, and we can pray:
Merciful Father, we pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory whom you cherish with a special love. They died in your grace and friendship, but imperfectly purified. Now they undergo the purification they need to enter the joy of heaven in radiant holiness. Thank you for this precious work of mercy by which you allow us to help our neighbors beyond the grave. By my sacrifices and prayers, and those of all the Church, relieve the Holy Souls and treat them with more clemency than their sins deserve. Amen.