Purgatory: hope, mercy, love

Purgatory: hope, mercy, love

Bishop Peter J. Elliott

Looking back at World Youth day, someone remarked, 'I think heaven will be like that!' There was a sense of endless joy on the streets of Sydney during those golden July days.

But there were other moments, not so much heavenly as 'purgatorial'. Priests standing for hours in a long queue waiting to register remarked to one another, 'After all, we are on a pilgrimage - and pilgrims have to suffer.'

Blessed Mary McKillop taught her sisters that 'we are but pilgrims here'. We gradually learn that suffering can have a purifying power for pilgrims. With that in mind we approach the mystery of Purgatory.

The teaching of the Church on Purgatory is brief. The Council of Trent taught: 'There is a Purgatory and the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful'. The Council Fathers went on to warn against superstitious practices. But they encouraged the 'suffrages' of the faithful for the dead - Masses, prayers, alms and other works of piety.


Recently, in his Encyclical Letter on Hope, Spe Salvi, 45- 47, Pope Benedict XVI focused on the judgement of God, even the possibility of damnation. But he commented on how St Paul envisaged a purifying way of salvation 'by fire' (1 Corinthians 3:12-15): 'We personally have to pass through 'fire' so as to become fully open to receiving God and be able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage feast.'

Hope is thus evident in the 'intermediate state' of Purgatory. Benedict then raised the theological speculation that the 'fire' of Purgatory is a cathartic encounter with Jesus Christ at the moment of judgement.

Such theological speculation can free us from dwelling on medieval images of Purgatory, regarded as a kind of B-grade hell. The fire of purgation is not so much punishment, rather a way of receiving the saving work of Christ, in atonement for the debt set up by the echoing effects of our many sins.

In The Dream of Gerontius, the Venerable John Henry Newman chose a different symbol, a deep cleansing pool, into which the angel gently lowers the soul, captured by Elgar in the sobbing tones of the angel's song. Baptism itself is renewed and fully applied in Purgatory. C.S. Lewis took up that symbol when he described the painful purification of the dysfunctional boy Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Yet even as there is a painful dimension to purification, Purgatory is best understood as the Divine Mercy beyond death. Therefore, this 'intermediate state' in eternity is not so much a 'second chance' as an intensification of God's patient and severe mercy.

Purgatory is a state of being where we are loved intensely by God. In literature, the constant and unconditional love of one person heals and transforms another. If that is true in human relationships, then it is central to the grace relationship, our baptismal union with Christ, and our penitential and Eucharistic life in Christ. Conversion will be completed beyond death.

God's purifying love embraces the souls detained in the merciful process of Purgatory. Never can they be lost. There, in the 'ante-room to heaven', they are certainly saved. But there they must be 'detained' to be purified, refined, and enabled to adjust and be prepared for the full enjoyment of the Beatific Vision and the glory of eternal resurrection.

What then are we doing in November when we offer Masses for our dear departed? We reach out to them with the love of Christ, applying to them his self-giving love, agape, caritas. Through this love he immolated himself on the cross for us. The Mass is the same Sacrifice as the atoning self-offering of Christ on Calvary, a sacrifice of reconciliation, pardon, and peace.

Vatican II

We do this as the Church, members of a wider communion extending beyond death. The Second Vatican Council taught: 'This sacred council accepts loyally the venerable faith of our ancestors in the living communion which exists between us and our brothers who are in the glory of heaven or who are yet being purified after their death and it proposes again the decrees of the Second Council of Nicea, of the Council of Florence, and of the Council of Trent' (Lumen Gentium, 51).

Through the bond of the communion of saints, in hope and love, we entrust the departed to the merciful care of God. Just as we invoke Mary and the saints in that communion, so we are able to reach out to our loved ones across the change of death. We assist them by our prayers and sacrifices, but above all through the Sacrifice of the whole Church, offered for those 'who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith'.

Bishop Peter J. Elliott is a Melbourne auxiliary bishop and Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education.

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