The fourth and final part of this excellent sermon on Purgatory:
The Feast of All Souls: Part 4
(by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876)
Yesterday the Catholic Church placed all the Saints of heaven before our eyes, to induce us to give due honor to them, to invoke them, and to follow them in the path of virtue. Today, she represents those souls to us, which, though destined to rejoice eternally in heaven, at present still suffer in purgatory; and she enjoins us to assist them to the best of our ability. To understand this rightly, it is necessary to know what the true faith teaches in regard to it.
The eternal punishment which we deserve by a mortal sin, will be remitted by a good confession, or, if we cannot confess, by perfect contrition; but the temporal punishment still remains, as the Catechism teaches us and as Holy Writ clearly shows. Venial sin is also forgiven by confession or contrition, in so far as the guilt is concerned; but its temporal punishment is not always entirely remitted at the same time. If, therefore, one has not endeavored, during his life, to gain remission of his temporal punishment by voluntary penance, good works, indulgences, patience under crosses and sufferings, he cannot enter heaven immediately after his death, as ” nothing defiled can enter there;” but he goes to a place where he will suffer until he is wholly cleansed. This place is called Purgatory.
Concerning the second point, the true faith teaches us that the faithful, who are still living in the world, can help and comfort the souls in purgatory, by assisting at Holy Mass, by prayers, by alms, fasting, indulgences and other good works. This doctrine is founded on the communion of saints, of which the ninth article of the Apostolic Creed speaks. To this communion belong the Saints in heaven, the faithful on earth, and the suffering souls in purgatory.
The first are the triumphant, the second, the militant, and the third, the suffering Church. The communion among these three portions of the Church consists in this, that the Saints in heaven pray for us, while we honor and invoke them. For those who are in purgatory, we offer up our prayers and good works; and they pray for us now whilst they suffer, and will pray for us also after they shall have been admitted into the presence of the Most High. Thus has the Catholic Church, which, on account of the continued assistance of the Holy Ghost, cannot fail, always believed and taught. Hence it has always been the custom of the faithful to pray for the dead.
The holy Fathers, Chrysostom and Augustine, testify that the custom of praying for the dead in Holy Mass dates from the time of the Apostles.” It was not instituted by the Apostles without a purpose, writes the former, “that we should remember the dead when we offer the unbloody sacrifice; they knew what benefit the dead would derive from it.” “We cannot doubt,” says the latter, “that the souls of the dead receive help from the prayers of the holy Church, the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, and from alms given with the intention that they may derive the benefit attached to that good action. For this has been left to us by the Fathers (the Apostles), and the whole Church observes it, that we pray for those who have died in the communion of the body and blood of Christ, when commemoration of them is made during the holy sacrifice, or when it is offered up for them.”
It is also known, from the books of the Maccabees that, in ancient times, prayers and sacrifices were offered for the dead. Although there is a daily memento for the suffering souls in purgatory during Holy Mass, and though almost all Catholics pray much and daily for them, the Church has instituted that this day should be particularly devoted to their remembrance, and that the faithful should offer their prayers and good works for them with especial fervor to the Almighty. It may be that there are many souls for whom no one prays during the year, because they either left no relatives or friends, or because they are forgotten by them. Hence, on this day, the Church desires that prayer and sacrifice, alms-deeds and other good works be offered for them all. To act in accordance with this holy desire of the Church is but just. Holy Writ urges us to pray for the dead by the following well-known words: “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” (II Maccab. xii.)
To have compassion on the poor souls, and to help them according to our means, is holy and wholesome. It is holy, because it springs from the love of God and of our neighbor; for, whoever loves God, loves also those who are loved by God and who love Him; and it is quite certain that the souls in purgatory love God and are loved by Him, although they are punished for a time. It is love of our neighbor, as those suffering in purgatory are perhaps persons nearly related to us, or from whom we have received many benefits, and whom we are therefore obliged to assist. But even if there are none of these, they are still the souls of our fellow-men; and this alone should incline and urge us to help them. Love towards our neighbor requires that we do to him as we wish that he would do to us. If you were in the place where these souls are, and if you had to suffer as they, would you not wish to be helped?
Therefore try to help them now, if you really love your neighbor. Do not imagine that their suffering is but little, and that it is of little consequence whether they are sooner or later released from it. St. Augustine says: “The fire that cleanses is sharper and more painful than all the suffering which we can conceive in this world.” “In my opinion,” says St. Gregory, “the fire of purgatory, although it eventually ceases, is more tormenting than all the torments of this world.” Other holy Fathers say the same, and add that the difference between the pains of hell and those of purgatory is, that the former are endless, while the latter last but for a time. How long each soul remains in purgatory is unknown to man; the duration differs, as also the greatness of their tortures. Their suffering is according to their sins.
Their greatest pain is that of privation, or the pain of loss; for as they have an intense longing to behold the Almighty, nothing can exceed the pangs of their grief, at being deprived of His sight until they have entirely expiated their sins. It is most certain that they endure this and other torments with perfect resignation to the will of the Most High; yes, though they suffer extremely, nevertheless they praise His justice. They are unable to help themselves or to shorten their pains, because their day of labor and merit is past. Hence, what is more just than that we should assist them, that they may be sooner released from their torments?
We can do it, and do it so easily; and the love which we should bear to our neighbor requires it. It is a holy work, it is even more than holy, it is also a useful and wholesome work. The assistance we give to the souls in purgatory, not only helps them to be sooner released from their pains and to see God, but it is also beneficial to ourselves. We lose nothing by offering up our prayers and other good works for them, but we gain much; for, the Almighty will not permit our charity to them to go without a reward. He is merciful to them that show mercy. And do you suppose that the souls, which, by our prayers, have come so much sooner into the presence of God, will forget us, and not show themselves grateful ? Be assured that we shall have constant intercessors in them before the throne of the Most High. Holy Writ assures us, that ” alms delivereth from death, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting.” (Tob. xii.) The kindness you show to the souls in purgatory is an alms you give to them, an act of charity; and it will result in God’s being merciful to you and granting you the grace of doing penance, that you may obtain pardon for your sins and life everlasting.
And if, one day, you too are restrained from the presence of God, in those penal fires, doubt not that they whom you will have freed from them will pray most efficaciously for you, that you may soon be admitted into heaven. Reflect then on these benefits which you may draw from being merciful to the poor souls in purgatory, and make today the resolution to aid them with all your strength as long as you live. Should you neglect it, you will have to fear that the words of Christ will be exemplified in you: ” For with the same measure that you shall mete withal, it shall be measured to you again.” (Luke, vi.)
“Pray for the dead,” says St . Augustine, “that they may also pray for you, when they shall have attained eternal glory. They wait to receive help from us. They call on us daily in their torments. If you desire, O man,” continues this holy teacher, ” that the Almighty should have mercy on you, have mercy on your fellow being who suffers in purgatory; for God will show you the same kindness that you show to your neighbor. Hence, pray for the dead.” And again he says: “One of the most holy practices is to offer sacrifice for the dead, to pray for them and give alms.”
In like manner do other holy Fathers speak. Richard of St. Victor confirms what has been said and encourages us to observe it, when he says: “The ransomed souls pray without ceasing in heaven for those by whose help they have been released; and the Lord refuses them nothing.”
Yet the Almighty does not admit them into His presence, until they are entirely cleansed by severe suffering. How blind and foolish, therefore, are those who regard a venial sin as only a trifle, or do not esteem it worthy of any thought at all. God, who is just, would not punish venial sin so severely were its wickedness not great in His sight. “We read in the laws,” says St. Salvianus, ” that those who had transgressed the least commandment of the Lord were most severely punished; so that we might understand that nothing is trifling which touches the Majesty of God. For, what seems small, in regard to the evil done by it, is yet great, because it offends the Lord.” Therefore, think not lightly of venial sin, but endeavor to avoid it with the utmost care. We should rather die and suffer all possible torments, than commit a sin, not only a mortal, but even a venial sin.
II. Be more solicitous to atone here on earth for the sins of which you have been guilty, that you may not have to suffer too long in purgatory. I know there are men who fear not purgatory, and who therefore are little concerned about expiating their sins. They say: ” If I only escape hell, I will be satisfied.” Others depend upon the prayers of relatives and friends, or upon the Masses for which they have made or intend to make provision in their will, or upon the prayers of the members of the Confraternity to which they belong, to be speedily released from purgatory. The former may read what I have cited above from the works of St. Augustine and St. Gregory, and draw from it, that this thought in regard to purgatory, and the negligence in atoning for offenses, which results from it, are so dangerous and so displeasing to the Almighty, that they may easily be misled by it into mortal sin and go to eternal destruction.
The latter may take to heart the words of the pious Thomas a Kempis, who writes: ” Do not place too great confidence in friends and acquaintances, and do not defer your salvation to the future; for men will forget you much sooner than you imagine. It is better to make provision in time, and to send some good in advance of you, than to hope for the assistance of others after your death. If you do not take care of yourself now, who will care for you when you are gone?” St. Gregory desires to impress the same upon us when he says: “Man acts more securely, if he himself does, during his life, what he wishes others to do for him after his death.”
Following the Sacrament of Penance
According to the Council of Trent, 1547.