My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Our Catholic tradition places special emphasis on praying for those who have died during the month of November. We began this month celebrating All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2. The month culminates liturgically on the Solemnity of Christ the King, which we will observe on Nov. 21 this year. In a sense these days are all related to each other in expressing our hope for all the dead to be resurrected and live forever in God’s kingdom, and so we pray for all the faithful departed throughout this month.
We express these beliefs in the Apostles Creed, where we profess our faith in the “communion of saints,” which is the unity in Christ of all the redeemed, the holy people of God, both living and dead. However, we also profess our faith in the “forgiveness of sins,” which is why we pray for the souls in purgatory, which is a final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who have died in God’s friendship. It is a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of the heavenly kingdom. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Thy Kingdom come,” asking for its final glorious appearance, when Christ will hand over his kingdom to his Father.
As we remember our friends and relatives who have died, we grieve not only because they are no longer with us here on earth, but we may also grieve at the thought that our loved ones may not be in God’s presence in his Kingdom of heaven, so we pray for their intentions and offer the Sacrifice of the Mass for their purification, that they may attain the beatific vision of God.
In thinking about death and preparing ourselves for that inevitable reality, it is good to avoid two extremes. One extreme is to think that it is impossible to get into heaven. We call this despair. It is the sin of Judas, thinking that our sins are so great that God will not or cannot forgive us. It is the Devil’s main trick to make people believe that they are unworthy of God’s forgiveness. The other extreme is to think that everyone will go to heaven no matter what they believe or how they have lived here on earth. We call this presumption. It is wrong to presume that everyone will go to heaven or even that a particular person is now in heaven because we are somehow convinced of his or her goodness. Only God knows what is in a person’s mind and heart and conscience. God’s offer of salvation is indeed made to everyone through Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, but God also respects our freedom to accept or reject this invitation. Not everyone accepts it; some may certainly reject it.
While we hope that our loved ones are in heaven with God, if they are not, it is at least our hope that they are in purgatory awaiting their final reward. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the doctrine of purgatory in this way: “All who die in God’s friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (paragraphs 1030-1031).
One way to help the souls in purgatory is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted. What does this mean? Pope Paul VI explained that an “indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven [through the sacrament of penance], which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the church.” An indulgence may be partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. Indulgences may be applied for one’s own benefit or for some other person, living or dead.
To understand this practice of the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. (This is what we call ‘hell.’) On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. … The forgiveness of sin and the restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace” (paragraphs 1472-1473).
So during this month of November, let’s pray for the intentions of all the souls in purgatory, especially our loved ones, and offer the Sacrifice of the Mass for their purification, that they may enjoy the reward of eternal happiness in heaven.
May God give us this grace. Amen.