Wisdom 3:1–9; Romans 5:5–11; John 6:37–40
I remember when I was about 10 years old, my family was out camping. My father had gone down to the river to do some fly fishing. At some point when he was casting, he managed to put the hook of the fly through his finger, and so he came back without any fish and with a fly embedded in his pinky.
Now the fly was in his right hand, so there was not a lot he could do, so he handed me a pair of pliers with a wire cutter and instructed me to cut the barb off of the hook. I made some half-hearted attempts, and those, of course, hurt worse than if I just bucked up and cut the darn thing. Finally, I got up the spine to remove the barb, and he was able to remove the hook.
When I look back on that event, what I see clearly now is that decisively dealing with a situation might cause some pain but is sometimes the only way that we can also deal with that situation with mercy. A lot of medical interventions hurt a lot more than the conditions they address, but they alleviate the problem in the end. So sometimes mercy comes with some necessary pain and discomfort.
Today we are celebrating All Souls Day—the day that the Church sets aside for us to remember and pray for those who have died. Yesterday we celebrated those who have died and have lived such lives of holiness that the Church is certain of their attainment of Heaven. But those are a very small percentage of us. For the rest of us, we might have some final preparation before we enter into God’s presence. For that reason, we pray for the souls of those who have left this world and are in the process of final preparation that we call Purgatory. Today is our special day for remembering and praying for our loved ones and others who may be in Purgatory. This is one of the seven corporal works of mercy that we as Catholics are called to perform.
The perpetual teaching of the Church has always indicated that this process involves some suffering, if only because the process of healing is often uncomfortable or even painful. So it is sometimes an unpopular teaching, particularly outside of the Catholic faith. This is a shame, because this extension of God’s mercy is looked at, instead, as a sign of His wrath and portrays God as being more interested in punishment than salvation.
Even in the Church, it has become commonplace for us to speak of the departed as if they are immediately in the presence of God when they die. It’s a lot easier to console our friends and loved ones by saying that the departed is in a better place, or is certainly “singing with the angels.” But it is like the kind of mercy that I would have dispensed to my father if I had told him not to worry about that hook in his finger. It does not attend to the injury but distracts from it. In fact, it’s not true mercy because mercy must always begin with and be rooted in truth. Mercy sometimes requires us to recognize and communicate the truths of our faith, and one of the truths of our faith—a dogma of our faith—is that those who are destined for Heaven but are not yet in a state of perfection, need to undergo the process of purification. And they need our prayers during that time. They need our intercession here so that they can be purified and can attain God’s presence. We are not being merciful if we fail to intercede for them. We are not being merciful if we don’t acknowledge that most of us… are not yet saints and will need all the help we can get.
Now, Purgatory has gotten a bad reputation here in the American Catholic Church, and I think that it comes from our largely Protestant American history. We question why a merciful God would require this punitive process if Jesus’ death canceled our debt of sin. But we have to balance that truth with the fact that nothing imperfect can enter into God’s presence.
Nothing imperfect can enter the presence of God. That is right out of Revelation 21. I certainly go to confession regularly, and I believe that I have been forgiven, but I am far from perfect. I suspect many of us are in the same boat. Being Catholic and being Christian means a lifetime of conversion daily, of changing more and more into that person who reflects perfectly the image of God. And that process occurs both now and in the afterlife, if we are not yet ready. We may very well limp into the afterlife with our baggage, our scars, and our woundedness… truly contrite but also still in need of cleansing.
What would be God’s merciful to response to us in our woundedness and imperfection? It would be to heal us, and that is precisely why God extends His mercy to us in Purgatory.
Our readings today underscore one important truth. God will not let anyone go who truly wishes to be with Him. God’s mercy and love extends to all, if only they recognize it and accept it. Isaiah writes that the souls of the just are in the hands of God, but that they may be chastised and proved as gold in a furnace, an image Paul also uses in 1 Corinthians. In our reading from the letter to the Romans, Paul points out that God went to all this trouble for us even while we were still sinners. A good man might find the courage to die for a just person, but even while we were sinners—while we were enemies of God—we were reconciled through the death of His Son.
In our gospel reading, Jesus says, “I will not reject anyone who comes to me.” Jesus has already done the heavy lifting. How much further would he need to go to prove that he will do everything He can to reconcile us to the Father? He did that (pointing at the crucifix) quite literally for Heaven’s sake and for ours. Jesus came to heal us, and He gives us every opportunity before and after death to make that happen. Purgatory is just one more sign of His love for us, and it is also one more reason for us to pray for each other, both here and in the life to come. We pray for those in Purgatory, and they, in turn, will pray for us. That is how the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints are supposed to cooperate.
In the coming month, we can put our faith into practice in a remarkable way—by remembering our deceased loved ones in prayer and doing our part to help them in Purgatory. Here are a few ways we can accomplish this.
We have a book up here on the altar for the entire month of November, where you can list your deceased relatives and friends. Please put their names in the book. As a parish, we will remember them in prayer. You also can remember them daily in your prayers and offer prayers for all souls in Purgatory, especially those most in need of God’s mercy.
Next, you can take advantage of any indulgences that are available for the remission of temporal punishment. Despite the bad reputation indulgences got during the Reformation, they are another sign of God’s mercy that he gives to the Church. By performing certain acts, the Church dispenses grace that aids us by releasing us from temporal penalties. We can offer our actions for the remission of penalties to souls in Purgatory. That has always been the point of indulgences—to seek assistance for someone else.
Finally, consider requesting a Mass for your loved ones. We offer prayer requests for the deceased at most masses. You can contact the parish office to make such requests.
We are all part of the Body of Christ in this world and the next. Let us pray for the souls making their final journey into God’s presence, and they will pray for us.