By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Since the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, commonly known as All Souls’ Day, occurs at the beginning of November, the Church has traditionally used this month as a time of reflection upon this doctrine. Therefore, we take it as our topic this week.
A wonderful reminder of our human dignity
From our human relationships, we all know that a relationship must be pursued and cooperated with by both people if it is to flourish. Since only the human person is capable of truly thinking, knowing and loving, only human beings can enter into these complete relationships. One may admire or have a great interest in a sports or entertainment figure, but this cannot be a true relationship, because it takes place from afar without an actual interaction of persons. Similarly, animals can be wonderful companions and can often possess remarkable characteristics, but the relationship between an animal and a person can never be the same as that between two people. All of this is possible because God has made the human person in His own image.
This possibility for relationships even makes it possible to have a true relationship with God! We are created in His image, with the ability to not only love one another, but also the ability to know and love God, and have a true relationship with Him. He is present to us through the Sacraments and in our life of prayer; this relationship can increase and it can decrease, and it can even be lost and found again.
In all of this, God allows us to exercise complete freedom. If our relationship with Him was engaged in under restraint, then it would not be a true, two-sided relationship. As part of this relationship, we can love God but we can also offend Him. In looking upon the image of Jesus Crucified we see the price of our sins and offenses, but we also see God’s great love. Through the reality of this love, we can be forgiven because the forgiveness is already there for the asking. In this way, God gives us every opportunity to love Him, but He does not force us to do so. In this way, we can offend Him but we can also freely seek forgiveness.
To continue using the imagery of human relationships in order to understand our relationship with God, we know that when we have offended someone, we must do something to correct the situation. When it is something serious, that has caused a deep wound in the relationship, more than a simple, “I am sorry,” may be necessary. It may take some time to heal the wound inflicted on the relationship because the offense has left scars. Through a constant and sincere effort those wounds may eventually be healed and the former relationship restored.
Once again, we look to the two-way relationship God wishes to have with us. When we offend Him, we must admit that offense and seek forgiveness. That forgiveness comes to us for the asking in the Sacrament of God’s merciful forgiveness, which we call Confession. However, both the Jewish tradition and the Christian understanding have a long history of believing in a form of purification that may be necessary in order to completely remove the effects of serious sins, which have already been forgiven. This is not a limiting of forgiveness or an extension of punishment, but rather a marvelous way by which we can use our human dignity to permit ourselves to be completely purified of the effects of serious sin.
This purification may take place in this life. This is why we should never waste an opportunity to use physical and mental suffering, misunderstandings and humiliations as means to purify ourselves of the effects of sin. All we need to do is to silently pray: “Dear Jesus, I offer this in union with your own suffering and death, so that I may be purified of the effects of my sins.” The sufferings that sometimes come before death give a person a marvelous opportunity for purification, but the everyday experiences of life can also give us those opportunities, if properly used.
Purification after death
The concept of an intermediate state of purification for those who had died in faith was a commonly accepted fact among the Jewish people. In the Book of Maccabees, we read of the Jewish leader Judas Maccabeus praying for the soldiers who had died in battle: “(Judas Maccabeus) took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been foolish to pray for them in death” (2 Maccabees 13:43,44).
With the “new and everlasting covenant” of Jesus, which replaced the imperfect sacrifices offered in the Temple, it was natural that the early Christians would offer that Sacrifice, renewed in the Holy Mass, for those who had died. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” references the Second Vatican Council in teaching: “From the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (CCC, 1032).
A famous quote, which reflects the practice of the early Church regarding a state of purification after death, and the need to pray for the dead, concerns St. Monica (333-387), the mother of St. Augustine (354-430). In his Confessions, Augustine speaks of her approaching death and his brother’s concern that she would die far from home. Monica replied: “Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”
Teaching concerning purification after death as explained by Pope Benedict XVI
In his Encyclical Letter “Spe Salvi” (“Saved in Hope”), Pope Benedict XVI gives an outstanding summary and explanation of the constant Catholic teaching that we have been speaking of. In reflecting on the concepts of justice and grace, which are very important in this discussion of purification, he writes: “Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Lk 16:19-31), we must note that Jesus is not referring to the final destiny after the Last Judgment, but is taking up a notion found, among other places, in early Judaism, namely that of an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. For the great majority of people-we may suppose-there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil-much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.”
A very welcome guest, who arrives at a celebration not properly dressed instinctively knows that he or she must change into proper clothing that is appropriate for the celebration, in order to fully enjoy and feel a part of the event. So it is with those who will enter Heaven, but who need a final, mysterious purification of the effects of sins committed and forgiven. They themselves will insist on that purification before they fully enjoy their reward. Since death does not break the bonds of love, is it not appropriate that, according to constant Church teaching, those on earth can assist those who are being purified? This very consoling doctrine makes wonderful sense and should be a source of great peace for us and a reminder to continue our bond with our beloved dead, and with those who have no one to pray for them. In this way justice and charity are both celebrated and all partake in the salvation offered to those who accept it.
18 November 2010