The Month of the Holy Souls

November is traditionally regarded as the month of the Holy Souls in Purgatory.  In recent years, I have found that many Roman Catholics believe that the Church no longer believes in Purgatory.  This is completely untrue.  The Church’s traditional teaching on Purgatory remains unchanged.

Daily, during the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, we pray for “those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith,” (Eucharistic Prayer I), “our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again,” (Eucharistic Prayer II), “all of our departed brothers and sisters, and all who have left this world in your friendship,” (Eucharistic Prayer III), “those who have died in the peace of Christ and all the dead whose faith is known to you alone,” (Eucharistic Prayer IV).  It is clear that we still retain the tradition of praying for the dead.  Our non-Catholic brothers and sisters do not follow this practice.  Why the difference between us?

The answer lies in two passages from Scripture.  The first is from the Second Book of Maccabees, in which we read that Judas Maccabeus took up a collection of two-thousand silver drachmas from his soldiers and sent the money to Jerusalem (to the Temple) in order that the priests would offer expiatory sacrifices for the soldiers who had fallen in battle.  The passage continues, “In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.  But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.  Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” 2 Maccabees 12:43b-46 The sin for which the fallen needed cleansing was that of idolatry.  They had worn tokens of the idols of Jamnia (pagan idols).  This was idolatry and; therefore, was forbidden under the Law of God.
The second passage is from the gospel of St. Matthew (5:25-26).  In this passage Jesus advises, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.  Truly, I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”  The Church has traditionally seen this passage not only as a shrewd way of dealing with earthly business matters, but as referring to “coming to terms” with God during this life in terms of our sins.  We must atone for them one way or the other, either here or there.  It is much easier to atone for sin here than to spend one minute away from the presence and glory of God in the next life.

The belief that every Christian believer goes immediately to heaven is an invention of only the last five centuries.  The ancient Israelites, our spiritual ancestors, believed in the necessity of praying for the souls of the dead, that they would be cleansed of the sins which they had committed in their lives, for which they had not yet atoned.  The Christian Church unilaterally maintained the same belief and practices for fifteen centuries.  It is only with the Protestant reformers that this belief and its attendant practices were abandoned.

Sadly, many people today miss the point and believe that we just need to pray for the souls of the dead and they will eventually be admitted to the presence of God after they have served their sentences, so to speak.  However, the real point of Jesus’ preaching and the Church’s teaching on this matter undeniably points to the real focus; the goal is to avoid Purgatory completely by refraining totally from sin.  Purgatory is not some kind of mini Hell.  The “punishment” we receive due to our sins is separation from the presence of God.  During our purgation (cleansing), we are given to see the difference between what our life might have been had we live it according to the will, love and mercy of God and what was because we chose to live it according to our own will.  In that moment of knowledge that rightfully, God could condemn us to eternal punishment we suffer the pain of complete separation from him.  As God forgives us and restores us (much like the prodigal son), we are snatched from the knowledge that we deserve Hell and have been given Heaven due only to the mercy and love of God.

Scripture tells us that “the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting to those who fear him and live according to his covenant.”  What we fail to remember is that God’s justice is as everlasting as his mercy.  Purgatory is the final chance for God’s justice to be served.  In this moment of realization of our real shortcomings, we experience insight and sorrow to a degree never imaginable during our earthly lives.  This sorrow is what touches the heart of God and what causes him to respond in his mercy. 

Purgatory is not really about punishment.  It is about the absolute love and mercy of God.  It had long been believed by Jews and Christians that only perfection can enter in to heaven to stay.  Very few of achieve that state of perfection in this life.  If that is the case and we are not perfect when we leave this life, we deserve condemnation.  Purgatory, then, is the last chance for us to seek the mercy of God and atone.  In this, God shows us his mercy one final time before we join him face to face.

The most powerful prayers for the souls of the dead have traditionally been known to be the sacrifice of the Mass, the Rosary and pious prayers such as “eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.”  However, we don’t often remember that any sacrifice in our daily lives, no matter how great or small, when done out of love for God and done for the sake of the Holy Souls in Purgatory is effective in helping to free them from their sins.