Purgatory exists even if we rarely talk about it

It’s worrying when people have all the answers, and are so smug that they are no longer open to being surprised by anything in this life – or the next. I don’t know how many times I have heard priests confidently announce at a funeral Mass that the person who was stiffened in rigor mortis a couple of days beforehand is now relaxing into God’s presence in heaven. You’d almost think that the priest had clearly identified the deceased’s location with the help of Google Maps.

This unassailable assurance about the person’s heavenly whereabouts is often echoed in the eulogy. Paradoxically, it is accompanied by comments such as: “But he was no saint, I can tell you.” Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I always thought that sanctity had to be clearly printed on your entrance card if you were to be admitted through those pearly gates. But nowadays it seems that a healthy dose of good will is almost enough. You have to be a mega-sinner – a Nazi war criminal, a serial killer or the like – in order to be barred, even temporarily, from paradise.

Don’t get me wrong: I am absolutely convinced that every human being who ever has been and ever will be, is created for heaven. And heaven is not just in the next life; it is already present on earth in everyone who loves, just as it was supremely present in Jesus, whose every word and deed proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven was close at hand. It is great news indeed that heaven is our home.
But for myself, I can clearly see that I need to progress a lot before I’m ready for heaven. I have so many layers of egoism that I am not even aware of them all. These multiple thick skins of selfishness need to be purified before I can bear the utter transparency and ravishing beauty of God’s unimaginable love.

That’s why purgatory is such a merciful expression of God’s love. Purgatory offers us the opportunity to complete the transformation that begins during this life. Only after death will we acquire a true sense of the greatness and majesty of God, the wonder of who He is, and we won’t want to arrive stained into the presence of the thrice-Holy One. Matthew’s Gospel speaks of a man who arrives at a wedding banquet without the right wedding clothes (Mt 22:11).

Baptism clothes us with the garments of salvation (Is 61:10), but it is not easy to keep these garments white and our innocence unsullied for the remainder of our lives. Love can make up for so much: as St Peter tells us, it covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8). And the infinite mercy of God meeting our perfect contrition makes for an astonishing transformation, as we know from the first “canonised” saint in history: the Good Thief. His destiny changed from complete degradation to total sanctity in a matter of moments: “today you shall be with Me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). But for those of us who have lost the innocence of baptism and not regained it, either through great love or deep contrition, we need to be cleansed once again.

Today we don’t speak much about purgatory, and sometimes we assume that this silence means it no longer exists. But to the best of my knowledge, purgatory will continue to exist until the Last Judgment. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the void that results when we dismiss purgatory is rapidly filled by other beliefs, like reincarnation, which is a particularly bad and inadequate substitute.

Reincarnation shares with purgatory the idea of giving the person a second chance after death, though in the case of reincarnation this second chance is through a second life on earth. But when it comes to making reincarnation concrete, it becomes more than problematic. Does it even make sense to try to think of being reincarnated, say, as a rat?

Imagine that you die tomorrow and the day after tomorrow you find yourself much smaller and more agile, scurrying along the lines of the London Underground. Would your personality be “in” that rat? Your feelings? Your thoughts? Your desires? Surely there would be no “you” left – just a brown rat feeding on rubbish. And if there were no you, we could not speak of reincarnation, because your soul would not be returning to earth in that rat’s body.

It would be simply a rat in a very different rat race from the commuters in the carriages above. Even the notion of being reincarnated as another human being does not hold together. Your unique personality cannot simply be inserted into another body, because your body is not a disposable container. Your body and soul are not simply stuck together like marmalade and margarine in a sandwich. You are your body and you are your soul, because your soul is embodied, and your body is totally enveloped by your soul. Your body and soul are interweaved and intertwined. You don’t say “My body is thirsty”, you say “I am thirsty”. You don’t say “my soul is praying”, you say “I am praying”. You are a unity.

We can make a huge difference to the souls in purgatory. And we should do our best to help them, because they cannot help themselves. Their earthly lives are over and so they cannot of themselves increase in virtue. But we can offer them the merits of our good words and deeds, of our prayers and acts of love, of our small sacrifices and, especially, of the biggest and best sacrifice of all, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We can offer this infinite sacrifice of Jesus to the Father on their behalf.

Without wanting to sound selfish about it, we can be assured that they will pray for us in return. It is never too soon to pray for the souls in purgatory, because, before we know it, it will be too late.

Fr Thomas G Casey is an Irish Jesuit priest and director of the diploma in Philosophy and Arts at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth

This article was first published in print edition of The Catholic Herald (31/10/14)

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