We keep today a sadly neglected commemoration. It used to be the case that ALL churches would be heaving at the seams today. It was a sound instinct of the faithful that led them to come and pray for the souls of their dearly departed loved ones, and it’s an instinct that we’d do well to try and restore.
The doctrine and practice that we celebrate today is one that makes me proud to be Catholic, with a capital “C”, because it’s not only about solid doctrine, and the way we reach solid doctrine, it’s a doctrine that squares perfectly with the pastoral needs of our heart –a perfect model of how all truth is pastoral. And, of course, it is a definitively "Catholic" doctrine because it was the defining issue that Martin Luther rejected at the Protestant Reformation.
We reach this doctrine about purgatory and the practice of praying for the dead in a solidly Catholic way not least because we find its most direct roots in the part of the Bible that Protestants call the Apocrypha, in the Second Book of Maccabees. “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins”.(2 Macc 16:46) We know there, as we know elsewhere, that this is thus a part of our Judeo-Christian Tradition, something familiar at the time of Jesus. And to be fully Catholic we need to be in touch with the continuity of that Tradition, or else we lose, among other things, a lot of the basis of Christian morals, which are largely Jewish morals, and we can end up saying that all Jesus believed is that you must be nice to each other.
It’s also solidly Catholic in that it’s rooted in private revelations, in the devotion of the saints. And the extent that we feel uncomfortable with these as sources of Faith, we can fear that we’ve been infected by Modernism.
But this practice, what I consider to be one of the crowning glories of Catholicism, is a glory that is, as I said, not only doctrinal and disciplinary, but is also deeply pastoral.
There are certain times in the life of everyone when we wonder what happens to people when they die. For some of us it first comes when we face the prospect of their own death. But probably, for most of us, that time comes when someone we love dies. It’s a time when we are likely to be not only concerned but distressed about the fate of our loved one. That distress can be met and faced by the doctrine of Purgatory and the practice of praying for the dead.
If we were Protestants then we would have to ABANDON our deceased loved ones to the judgement of God, unable to help them in any way. But, as Catholics, we know that the bonds that unite us to the dead are greater than the division brought about by death. In the Communion of Saints we remain united to the dead, because whether are alive or dead we all remain united to Christ. On earth, we can pray for each other while we are alive. I can pray for my friends, my family and those I do not even know. It is the same with the dead. I can pray for deceased friends, and family, and strangers. I can pray that God will have mercy on them in the Judgement. In this way we’re not left powerless and despairing when our loved ones die. We’re still able to help them, just as we could help them while they were on earth.
I often feel sorry for Protestants faced with grief, because it’s important that we have something we’re able to DO in grief. And in the economy of the Communion of Saints God has foreseen this, and arranged for this, and so we maintain our bonds with the deceased by our prayers for them.
The doctrine of purgatory also gives us hope against the fear that we will be judged too harshly. Many of us may fear at some time or another that we’re not good enough to go to heaven. And we’re not good enough for Heaven. And Scripture itself teaches us that there is only perfection in heaven. But this doesn’t need to cause us to give up hope, because otherwise there would be no-one in heaven.
We can go to heaven even though we’re not pure, even though we have sinned. But in order to do so we must go through a time, a place of purification. And that place is Purgatory. There, through the grace that is given to us by and through Jesus Christ, we will be made perfect, and fit to live in the happiness of heaven.
And so Purgatory is a doctrine that gives us hope. Hope because we know that even sinners like you and me can make it into the perfection of heaven.
Our time in purgatory is also something that can be shortened and made easier by the prayers of the faithful. And so we pray for our loved ones. Not only that God will have mercy on them in the Judgement, but also that they will be sped through Purgatory.
So let us rejoice today in the consoling doctrine of Purgatory, and the practice of praying for the dead. It’s one of the great spiritual acts of mercy. And it keeps us mindful and thankful that death does not totally separate us from the dead, and so we remember them in our prayers.