In November, the Catholic faithful remember especially in prayer those persons who have passed away from this earthly life, especially those who are in purgatory. There are many misconceptions about this teaching, which itself stems from early Judeo-Christian tradition and teachings.
To examine purgatory, we begin with this question: Does God have expectations of humanity? I believe anyone who prayerfully reads the Scriptures would answer yes, because throughout the Bible, God reveals his desire for relationship with us – and every relationship has expectations.
Jesus summed up man’s duties toward God in this saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). This should encourage us, because God is the source of all love and everything that is good.
Still, we find it difficult to live in perfect union with our Heavenly Father, who has revealed his love to us. Jesus tells us, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We are commanded to do this; something we can only do with the help of God’s grace.
That grace comes to us, discovering the joyful plan that God has for us, when we make God our priority; through a commitment to daily prayer and faith formation as revealed through the Scriptures and the Church. We’ve seen this lived by so many role models, including the saints.
What happens, however, if we ignore God, and allow our appetites and desires to dominate us? Since we are made in God’s image and likeness, living such a life ultimately leads to unhappiness and hopelessness. Does this mean God is finished with us? No, God’s love sustains us even when we choose to be far from him; he desires the salvation of all humanity.
What happens to the millions of people who believe in God, and yet live with little regard for faithfulness to his revelation? If in the end, they repent and seek his mercy, we believe that they may be saved, but will need to be purified before uniting themselves totally with God in the glory of heaven. Thus, purgatory is not a final destination, but more like a journey through which some souls undergo “on their way” to heaven.
Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that, at the end of our lives, “We present ourselves before the power of Love itself… It is Love that demands purification, before man can be made ready for that union with God which is his ultimate vocation and destiny.”
Our ancient belief in purgatory is fundamentally based on how much our loving God wants us to live perfectly united with him for all eternity, even if we haven’t been perfect. For this reason, at every Mass everyday throughout the world, we pray for those who have died. We believe that prayer can assist them in their purification process, just as our prayers assisted them in their earthly trials.
Truly, Scripture teaches us that our present trials and difficulties can help us make reparation for our sins against God and humanity, if we intentionally unite them with the sufferings of Christ.
However, at the end of our life, if we have not rejected God and yet have not reached the state of perfection that God has expected of us, in his mercy, he will purify our soul after death through what we call purgatory.
Deacon Tom Fox is co-director & co-founder of Pilgrim Center of Hope. This column was originally submitted for the San Antonio Express-News “Belief” column in its Faith section.