On Nov. 2, the Church celebrated the Commemoration of All Souls, praying not only for our own deceased relatives and friends, but for all who have passed through the gates of death. This includes the countless millions of ordinary, nameless, unsung people who have left no trace on the earth.
Remembrance of the dead is most important. Without such remembrance we lose part of ourselves, and we do not know who we are. The fact that the Church prays for the dead is profoundly significant. Such prayer arises out of a very particular understanding of life after death that is a crucial part of the Catholic tradition.
The modern understanding of death, the one commonly held in our culture – even among Catholics – can be pictured in the following way: At the time of death, the soul is separated from the body and instantly enters a condition of eternal joy and happiness of a rather undefined kind. And there is no communion between the living and the dead.
But the traditional Catholic understanding of death is rather different. It holds that at the time of death, the human person enters into a state of pilgrimage toward the Kingdom of God. Unless the person has achieved the status of the saints, he or she enters into a state of ongoing growth and purification, into a state in which growth into the perfection of Christ continues.
This is what the Church’s belief in purgatory is all about. Purgatory is not a kind of divine concentration camp in which those who died in imperfection are punished. Rather, it represents a process by which God reaches out to those who have died in imperfection and calls them to himself.
In the imagery of the Church, purgatory is seen as a fire, not a fire of destruction and desolation, but the living fire of the Holy Spirit that cleanses and purifies. St. Catherine of Genoa spoke of “the purgatory of God’s burning love.”
In the same way, the pain of purgatory is not the pain of divine wrath, but the pain of growth and transformation, the pain of breaking out of the old self into the new. The fact is, we become holy, whether in life or in death, by many transformations that inevitably involve pain because they involve growth, self-scrutiny and self-sacrificing love.
The doctrine of purgatory embodies the profound truth that we are not “frozen,” so to speak, in the marred and human condition in which we die. If we arrive at death’s door as imperfect and incomplete Christians, far from the perfection of the saints, we are not condemned forever to that state. The love of God reaches out and continues in us its creative process of sanctification.
When we pray for the dead, then, we are doing something very meaningful and profound. We are pouring out our love for the dead as they continue on their pilgrimage to the perfection of the Kingdom of God. Prayer for the dead is an act of solidarity, an act by which we accompany them on their pilgrim way. It is a testament on our part to the worth and goodness of the departed.
The dead belong in our future. Our lives are enmeshed with theirs. We shall have to encounter them again. The coming of God’s Kingdom includes the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of each one of us, and the resurrection of history from all its tears and ruins, from death and misery, destruction and tragedy. In November, we are invited to think often of those who have gone before us and to remember them not with bleak sorrow but with Easter joy.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.