Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


We are very grateful to Fr John Hemer MHM for providing the following meditation on Purgatory, based upon the homily he preached in the Conventual Church on All Soul's Day.  Fr Hemer is a scripture scholar, and formation adviser at Allen Hall, the diocesan seminary.

All Souls

Purgatory and prayer for the dead is one of those areas which sharply divide Catholics from many other Christians. Why is this? It’s to do first of all with the different understanding that Catholics and some of the churches of the Reformation have regarding what exactly salvation means. In classic Lutheran theology, when a person stands before God for judgement, Christ (in Luther’s words) “wraps the cloak of his virtues around the sinner”. So when God looks at you or me on judgement day what he sees is not the sinner that I am, but the virtues of Christ which are then imputed to me. God declares me to be ‘just’ and that’s salvation. This means that I remain the same lousy sinner, but God pronounces another verdict on me. Luther described the Christian before God as a “dung heap covered with snow”
Catholic theology is rather more positive about the way God deals with the human condition. When the priest mixes the wine with a little water at Mass he says this prayer: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity” That’s an amazing claim. As Catholics we claim that we become like God; that our share in the life of God grows to fullness. (The Orthodox churches of the East are much stronger and clearer on this than we often are. They say that the point of Christian life is ‘divinisation’) Bear in mind that on the first page of genesis the Bible tells us that we are made in the image and likeness of God. That image is tarnished and obscured through sin so God makes sure that when we join him finally and for ever, we bear that image fully.
This process of being made like Christ begins at Baptism, and many of us, most of us, die before it is complete. It must somehow be completed since that is God’s original intention for us. So after death there is still room for God to purify us, complete us, make us fully the people he wants us to be. That’s what we call Purgatory, it is the finishing off of that process.
You may ask: “why can’t God just forgive, wipe the slate clean? In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father just runs and forgives the boy, end of story. But it’s not the end of the story. Jesus deliberately doesn’t tell us how it all ends. The Father’s loving embrace, one of Jesus’ most powerful images of God, is only the beginning of a story When the father embraced him the son knew he was loved, forgiven welcome, but it would take time maybe years for him to feel fully at home and allow that love to turn him into someone who would never feel the need to leave home again. He still had to repair his relationship with his older brother (and the brother had plenty of room for improvement too.) So although the father’s forgiveness is immediate and unconditional, it was the beginning of a process of healing and reconciling which could perhaps be quite lengthy.
The same is true with the woman who had a bad reputation in the town who wipes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. She is forgiven, there and then, but her many sins will have done all sorts of damage to her character and self-esteem. Although she knows that she’s fully accepted by God, it may take many years to repair the damage her dissolute life has done.
So when we are forgiven of our sins we are truly forgiven. I once heard a priest say: “After confession your sins are buried at the bottom of the sea, and God puts a sign there saying ‘No Fishing’”. That’s true but we know how sin damages all sorts of things and even after forgiveness, complete forgiveness, we may have to work quite hard to repair that damage.
In classic Lutheran theology the accused man walks out of court acquitted, with a verdict of innocent recorded against his name, but he’s still the same lousy no-good. In Catholic theology God is not content just to acquit him, but he wants to turn him turns him into someone truly good and loveable and beautiful, the person he intended him to be in the first place.
Most of us I suppose would be happy for God to just let us off the hook, but his purpose is much bigger, he wants us to become holy – like him. We would settle for mere acquittal, but God will settle for nothing less than our full transformation and the Catholic Church will settle for nothing less than insisting on God’s purpose being realised in all its fullness.
Chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel gives us the sense that by continually partaking in Eucharist we become like Christ, we draw his life. As St. Augustine says we become what we eat. We offer Mass for the dead because they took part in Eucharist here and that began the process of transformation into Christ. In another way the Eucharist offered for them continues to help them in that growth and transformation.
I’m not much of a craftsman or an artist. If I have to make something with my hands I settle for the easiest solution, usually involving nails or glue and probably quite a lot of grunting and shouting. A craftsman won’t do that. He’ll take his time and make something both functional and beautiful. God is just such a master craftsman, he wants only the best for his children. He intended us to be like him and he isn’t content until that is fully realised. Purgatory is the place where the last stages of that process take place.
An unfortunate trend has grown in some places whereby a funeral Mass is called a “Memorial Service for Joe Bloggs” or sometimes even “A Celebration of the Life of Joe Bloggs” It’s important to realise that a Requiem Mass is nothing of the sort. It is like every Mass, a celebration of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. If you want, it’s a memorial service, but it is Christ who is remembered and made present, not the dead person. And in doing that, Joe Bloggs has the chance of salvation, of eternal happiness. Yes we do give thanks for his life, but we do that in union with Christ. The Mass is first and foremost about Christ, not the person who’s being buried.
A memorial service is something people do when they don’t believe they can do anything to help the dead person. My father was not a Catholic and when he died the local Vicar came to pay his respects, and I must say was very gracious and charming. We’d brought Dad’s body back home, and the Vicar went and looked in the coffin for a moment but said no prayer. As an evangelical I suppose he didn’t believe in praying for the dead. But I remember thinking to myself that if as a priest all I had to offer bereaved people was sympathy I’d be very badly off indeed. Sadly for many people the best they can do for their dead loved ones is keep their memory alive. That’s well and good and necessary but it’s for the benefit of the living. It does the dead no good. As Catholics we can help actually them, with our prayers. In fact the only thing we can do which helps the dead is praying for them. That’s why the Catholic Church does it incessantly every day hundreds of thousands of times, at every single Mass.
Often people die and we have unfinished business with them. All too often we see the tragedy of someone dying with broken relationships before they or their estranged loved ones had chance to do anything to mend the rift. People feel particularly powerless and feel the loss very acutely when that happens. Praying for the dead means that even in that dreadful situation we are not powerless, we can do something.
Someone once said that the Church is the only organisation that doesn’t loose members through death. We believe in the communion of saints. We here on earth, the Church Militant, the souls in purgatory, the Church Suffering and the saints in heaven, the Church Triumphant are all in this together. The saints can help us, and we can help those who have finished one phase of their journey towards union with God, but haven’t quite made it to the end.