Our brothers and sisters in Purgatory: sermon on the feast of All Souls

“It is appointed unto men once to die, and after that, judgement.”

This quotation from St Paul is appropriate for this time of year. We are in the month of November, when the Church encourages us to pray, even more than at other times, for our dead.

So, what happens when we die? As St Paul says, we are judged. We’re judged by Christ on what we did with the lives that we were given. And the Church tells us that there are three things that can happen to us when we’re judged. Some souls can go straight to Heaven. This was the case, of course, of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church says that it is also true of the martyrs. Whenever someone dies for the faith, like St John Fisher dying because he acknowledged the pope as the head of the Church, it is like a second baptism. Whatever sins they may have committed are washed away, and Christ receives them, immediately after death, into His Father’s kingdom.

In fact, this applies not only to the martyrs, but also to anyone whose love for God before death was so intense that it consumed all other desires, and obliterated all traces of past sins.

But secondly, we know, alas, that some souls will never enter Heaven. Those who die with hearts that are hardened, closed against God and the truth that He has revealed, or dominated by a lust for money or power or pleasure, and who do not repent — they will never enter Heaven. Death fixes them up forever in the attitude that they have when they die. Just as oil and water can never mix because their natures are so different, so these souls have nothing of the divine nature in them, and they can never be united to God, nor find rest. They are the lost souls.

So, there is Heaven immediately after death, and there is Hell. But the Church says that our judgement also has a third possible outcome. Unlike the other two, this is not a permanent destination. It is a temporary phase of the journey toward Heaven. Those who die loving God, and trusting in their Saviour, and repentant for the sins of their life, yet without being entirely surrendered to His will, or without having made sufficient amends to God’s justice for their past sins — these souls will go to Purgatory.

What do we know of Purgatory? We can mention three things. Firstly, it is a state of purification. The very word “purgatory” indicates this. To purge is to make clean. The souls there have repented of their sins, but these sins will often have left behind vices, which need to be rooted out. In the Apocalypse, St John tells us that nothing defiled can enter the heavenly City. Since God is infinite holiness, even a venial sin is an obstacle to that perfect union with Him for which we were made.

Secondly, it is the testimony of tradition that Purgatory is a painful process. It is not just like a doctor’s waiting-room, where a little tedium is the worst we might expect. St Paul compares Christ’s judgement to fire. “The fire,” he says, “will test every man’s work.” Speaking of the imperfect Christian, the man who had faith in Christ but whose life was spiritually mediocre, St Paul says that it will be as though that man’s deeds are burnt up by the judgement; the man himself will be saved, but “as by fire”.

This should not surprise us. It is our soul that gives us the power to feel pain, both physical and spiritual. So, when the soul is stripped bare, no longer clothed with the body, we can expect it to be more susceptible, not less. The souls in Purgatory are more alive than we.

But thirdly, we know that the souls undergo their purgation willingly. How can we know this? It’s because they died with love of God in their souls, and at the moment of death, that attitude became fixed and permanent. In loving God, they now love the whole of His will, including His will that they should be there. They don’t want to enter heaven a moment sooner than God chooses. They’re ready to wait, to use our Lord’s own metaphor, until the last farthing of their debt has been paid. So, although they have an ardent desire to see God, a desire that surely grows still more intense as they approach their goal, they are nevertheless at peace in His will.

So, these are the three things that we can know about the holy souls in Purgatory. They are being purified; their purification is painful to them; they embrace it willingly.

But there is one other thing we know: we can help them. When a Christian dies, he does not leave the Church. We’re in communion with these souls. Just as nutrients circulate in a physical body, so also with Christ’s mystical body, of which we are members. But not only can our prayers help our brothers and sisters in purgatory: so can our penances, for example when we give up some food or drink, or whatever other sacrifice we feel moved to make. And above all, there is the sacrifice: the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. We can ask a priest to offer the Mass for this or that departed souls, or simply for all the faithful departed.

But if you still need a motive to pray for the souls in purgatory, remember that you may be there one day yourself. If we are, and if we have made the effort in our lives to help the holy souls, then God will inspire someone on earth to pray for us when we need it. For although the souls in Purgatory are holier than we, since they cannot sin any more, they can no longer help themselves. They rely on us. So, let us who still walk in the light of the sun remember those who sit in darkness, and who eagerly await their birth into glory.