NGUYEN: Holy souls of purgatory

November 8, 2022

(Photo by James Ramos/Herald)

Have you ever thought about death? Most people, especially the healthy and youthful ones, do not like to consider their mortality. There is, however, a longstanding tradition in the Church that exhorts us, “Memento mori”/“Remember you must die!”

Don’t get me wrong, however. I’m not referring to a morbid fascination with death but to a healthy and holy meditation on this inevitable reality that awaits us.

For every person who embraces the grace of salvation in Jesus Christ, death is but a step toward eternal life. Prayerful consideration of death can change the way we live our lives and how we relate to the dead.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that all who die in a state of sanctifying grace are assured eternal salvation. The souls in purgatory are holy because they are saved, and eternal life awaits them with certitude, even as their love of God, ever so real, is still imperfect. God is pure light, and in Him, there is no darkness whatsoever (1 Jn 1:5). Every one of us inevitably falls short of Christ’s command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).

When we come to the throne of judgment, every darkness of sin within us will be exposed to His light. Every shadow of our ungodly attachments must be expelled from our souls. This process of purification is a lifelong project of striving for holiness, and what is not achieved in this life — the remainder of the process — will be completed after death.

Purgatory is thus the state of those who have received redemption but are yet still in preparation for the full vision of God in heaven. As gold is refined in fire (1 Cor 3:13-15), the fires of purgatory burn away all that is not of God: unremitted venial sin, attachments to sinful ways, our bad habits and selfish inclinations. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI describes the fires of purgatory in Spes Salvi as Christ Himself, whose gaze melts away all falsehood “as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves.”

The pain of this transformation “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” (no. 47). Purgatory is, therefore, that place where the good work God has begun in each of us is brought to perfection (Phil 1:16) and where our souls are clothed with celestial wedding garments worthy of an eternal banquet (Mt 22:12). God so graciously prepares us for what “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has yet entered the human heart.”

In addition to affirming the existence of purgatory, the Council of Trent solemnly taught that the suffrages of the faithful assist the souls of the faithful departed through offerings of prayer, alms, indulgences, and in a special way, the holy sacrifice of the Mass. The awesomeness of the Church’s teaching on purgatory lies in the superabundance of God’s mercy, and eternal wisdom manifested therein.

The fact of purgatory and the communion we maintain with the faithful departed bespeak the fact that while death may wreak a disintegration of life, it does not have the final say. For even in death, “the souls of the just belong to God” (Wisdom 3:1), and the faith and familial bonds from our earthly existence endure.

This profound hope-filled belonging is possible because love is stronger than death. We belong to God, who is love and whose justice is meted out in mercy. In Him, we also belong to one another through the bonds established in our common faith in Jesus Christ. This bond is so strong that it supersedes death, allowing our prayer for one another to transcend the limits of time and space and extend into eternity.

Holy Mother Church reminds us of these bonds of communion and exhorts us in a special way throughout the month of November to remember all those who have died. Let us commit ourselves to this spiritual work of mercy in praying for the faithful departed. †

Sister Theresa Marie Chau Nguyen, OP, is an assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas.