During this Month of the Holy Souls, let us reflect on Purgatory and the great justice and mercy of God in providing such a place of purification for those saved:
Sermon by Fr. P.A. Sheehan D.D.:
THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
One of the most beautiful and divine doctrines of the Catholic Church, dear brethren, is that which is professed under the title of “Communion of Saints.” It is, as it were, a loving concession on the part of Almighty God that He suffers us to think of our friends, whom He has called into their rest. He is a jealous God; one condition He is forever insisting upon as necessary to our salvation–that is, that we should give Him our whole beings, every act we perform, every thought we think. But He knows what the human heart is, He who loved so tenderly the Mother who bore Him, and He yields to our weakness, and suffers us to think of, to rejoice with, or to sympathize with, those to whom human affections attached us in this life. I have called it divine. It is nothing less. No one but a loving God could inspire us with the belief that death is in reality no separation, no fierce rending asunder of affections, no violent wrenching of heart from heart and soul from soul. Death makes a change, it is true, but what is that change? It is a change that increases, strengthens, and exalts that love which we have for one another in this world. Our love is proportioned to our veneration and respect; the more our friend is free from human infirmities, the more we are drawn toward him, and this is the blessed change that death effects. It steps in between those friends and takes one, and separates from that one all his imperfections, and changes him into a bright, pure, angelic spirit, but does not destroy him. That friend whom we loved still lives, but is more worthy than ever of our love, and we are not separated. We can reach into eternity, we can add new lustre to our sainted brethren in heaven; even the little mite of our praise and love does help to swell the eternal jubilee of the saints in heaven. And on the other hand, we can reach those saints who are in pain, those blessed souls who have got a glimpse of the spotless sanctity of God and a true idea of their own imperfections and then hurried away from the sight of God and plunged themselves in the purifying flames of purgatory that they may be able for eternity to stand unashamed in company with their brethren. Blessed be God. We can enter even that prison, and give our brethren a respite from pain, we can do, in a milder way, by our prayers, the purifying work of these awful flames, we can shorten the terms of their imprisonment, and at the same time, satisfy their sensitiveness and quiet their apprehension lest they should again carry sin into the presence of God.
There is not in this world anything so beautiful as the deathbed of a holy Catholic. Fortified by the Sacraments of the Church, serene in the consciousness of the possession of God’s grace, yet half afraid to meet that God whom its soul longs to possess, picturing to itself the happiness of heaven, it is a recompense well worthy of the repentance of a lifetime. And yet, except with the greatest saints, it clings to the memory, love, and protection of its earthly friends. Behind the veil, it knows well it will be clasped in the arms of Jesus Christ, but it clings to the warm grasp of its earthly friends even till the eyes swim and the earth is gliding from beneath its feet. And its last and best consolation as it glides into the world of spirits is that the prayers of its friends are before it, that already there are voices pleading for it at the judgment seat of the Lamb. And is it not so? Oh yes, dearly beloved. The prayers for the dying are over, the prayers for the dead begin. We intrude into the awful courts of heaven, we interrupt the process of Judgment, we silence the voice of the accuser, by speaking to Jesus the Judge and reminding Him that that soul is His, that He redeemed it, that the marks of His blood are upon it, and by conjuring Him to save that dear soul, to fit it for presence in heaven, but not to deliver it into the hand of His enemy. Even that body that is left us, do we not reverence it, do we not consecrate it? Do we not make these lifeless arms into the sign of our redemption. Do we not sprinkle that body with holy water, because it is holy? Do we not incense it, because it is worthy of all reverence? We will not even allow it to mingle with unhallowed dust, but we bless the very earth into which it will be changed, and then raise over it the sign of our redemption, that nothing unholy might come near it, that the enemy may know that there is nothing in this grave that belongs to him, but a body that was crucified and nailed to the cross with Jesus Christ.
And then we follow the souls of our friends into eternity. From the judgment seat we follow them into their prison, where their angel conducts them, and our prayers, as it were, rain down incessantly on those fires. We pray for them at our public services; we pray for them at our private devotions; we pray for them even at our meals; there is scarcely a day in which the Holy Sacrifice is not offered for these suffering souls; there are many in the Church who have given to God all the merits of their lives, their prayers, fastings, almsdeeds for the souls in purgatory; there are religious Orders in the Church who repeat frequently during the day the De Profundis for the departed. And with all this, dear brethren, if we consider how great are the sufferings of these poor souls, we shall see how really uncharitable we are and how unreasonable it is that we do so very little.
THE REASON FOR PURGATORY
For why do we not speak of purgatory? Apart from the fact that purgatory exists, a belief founded upon the teachings of Scripture and the Church, what is the reason of purgatory, its purpose, its objects? It has a twofold reason–to satisfy the justice of God and the mercy of God. In heaven there is nothing but mercy; in hell there is nothing but justice; in purgatory justice and mercy meet, and the poor souls detained there are the victims of God’s great justice and at the same time the objects of His love and clemency. They passed into eternity, faithful to God, united to God. He could not cast them out of His sight forever, but unconsciously they carried with them before the All Holy God some human weaknesses, some human infirmities, and as “nothing defiled can enter into the kingdom of heaven,” His mercy provided for them a place of purgatory, where sharp penance would expiate their faults and restore them spotless to His bosom. Heresy rushes into extremes on this as well as on all other dogmas. It condemns a soul without remorse or scruple, it saves souls easily and pleasantly without even the pretense of penance. It believes that for the slightest sin, for the half voluntary thought or the silly word, a merciful God will cast a soul into the flames of hell forever, whereas on the other hand, years of sin may be atoned for by the simple presumption that God has pardoned them. The innocent soul that has never lost the grace of Baptism, but has only yielded to those faults that the judgment angel does not care to record, if suddenly snatched from life by death, is banished from the presence of God forever, whereas the sinner who has been heaping up for himself a measure of wrath for many years is admitted at once, unshriven, impenitent, and unpurified, into the company of the angels and the elect. I do not believe in such very sudden changes. I know the power of God. I would not for the world underrate or depreciate it. But there is a saying of St. Augustine full of much wisdom: “God has created us without ourselves; God will not save us except by our cooperation,” and that cooperation, if we have sinned, is the cooperation of penance. The redemption of the world by our divine Lord has not changed the nature of sin. Sin is as hateful in the eyes of God now as it was then, and it is true now as it was when John the Baptist preached: “Except you do penance you shall all likewise perish” (Luke xiii. 5). That penance must be done either in this world or in the next. If we be guilty of mortal sin, it must be atoned for in this life by penance, or it will never be atoned for, though it will be punished in the eternal fires of hell; if it be venial sin, it can be atoned for by penance and prayer in this life, or by the sharp fires of purgatory in the next.
The late Father Faber was accustomed to say that he could never understand why we speak of the poor souls in purgatory. He thought them rich indeed, much to be envied, little to be pitied, They are indeed truly rich, because they are certain of possessing God forever. Compared with us, living as we do in dreadful uncertainty about our salvation, they are to be envied exceedingly. And yet it is also true that they are deserving of our sympathy and pity. They are poor because they are suffering, and the promise of the future scarcely relieves their anguish in the present. A man lies upon his bed, writhing and tossing in fever. His physician gives hopes of his recovery, tells him almost infallibly that he will recover. Yet with that prospect of certain recovery, is he not deserving of our pity and compassion? These poor prisoners that are cut away from all human society in the jails of the country, are they not deserving of pity, even though their term of imprisonment is not eternal, and they will enjoy their liberty all the more for having lost it for a time? So with the blessed souls in purgatory. They are truly deserving of our pity, compassion, and sympathy, because, although they belong to God, yet they are suffering now, suffering bitterly, suffering intensely in the fires of purgatory. If a child were in agony, and if the mother who could relieve it turned aside from it, consoling herself with the reflection that it wouldn’t die, would we not call her unfeeling and cruel? Yet we do the very same thing when we refuse or neglect to assist the suffering souls on the pretense that they cannot die because they are saved. Oh dearly beloved! It it very selfish and unfeeling on our parts, it is enough almost to make God abandon us, if we go through life, and never assist these blessed souls, whom we can assist so easily and who need our assistance so much. I do not think that there is one of us who does not feel remorse again and again during life for neglecting the souls in purgatory. There is not one of us who does not start from a long course of selfishness, start with the thought that all that time we were enjoying ourselves, light-hearted and careless, that dear friend, whom we loved in this world and who prized our love, has been crying to us in anguish, has been lifting up his hands to us from the flames, perhaps has long ago turned away from us in despair, and rested all its hopes on the mercy of God rather than upon the cruelty of his friends. There is not a single soul among us to whom voices are not crying every hour of the night and day, in the language of Holy Job, “Have pity on me, have pity on me, at least you, my friends, for the hand of the Lord hath touched me” (Job xlx. 21). If we had faith, we would hear them. And if we had even human hearts, and not hearts icy cold through selfishness and worldliness, we would rest neither by night nor by day from relieving them.
THE SUFFERINGS OF PURGATORY
And let us not deceive ourselves with the delusive hope that the pains of purgatory are very short or very trifling. We do not know what sin is. But if we only look on the cross of Jesus Christ, we must acknowledge that it is of infinite malice in the sight of God. If, therefore. His justice demanded the life of His Son for a single sin, what will not His justice demand of us for our countless sins? And though His Justice saves us from the hell which we deserve. His justice demands from us some slight satisfaction at least. Again mortal sin, being of infinite malice, is punished with infinite torments; how venial sin approaches as nearly to mortal sin as finite things can approach to infinite, and, therefore, that punishment of venial sin in purgatory is everything but infinite. And the doctors of the Church teach us, and teach us with truth, that the pains of purgatory are the pains of hell, but they are not eternal. In purgatory, as in hell, there is the physical pain of fire; in purgatory, as in hell, there is the shame and remorse of sin; and above all there is that pain, infinite, unendurable, the pain of loss, the pain of being separated from God. We cannot understand that, because we have not seen God, but, dear brethren, it is for God we are made. We are in this world always fretting and chafing at our separation from God; all the sorrow of the world, if really resolved, would be found to be separation from God. At death when our souls are freed, they fly straight to the bosom of God, and what a dreadful anguish it must be to be spurned by God, to see Him and not to possess Him, to know and perceive that He is everything our souls can desire and yet be unable to possess Him. To have seen the face of Jesus Christ, to have heard His sweet voice speaking to us words of mercy, and then to be led away from Him with a barrier of fire between us, that is the greatest torture a human soul can suffer, and that is the suffering of the soul in purgatory. Do not make light of it, dear brethren. Do not think little of it. No one but a mother can understand a mother’s sorrow for her child, and no soul but that has seen God can understand what it is to lose Him even for a time. But it is a truth of divine faith, and our ignorance of the real nature of that truth, our inability to understand it, does not lessen the anguish of those souls who know it too well. And if we be wise, and wise with the wisdom of charity, we shall act on what faith teaches us, and try to help those blessed souls as if we saw with our own eyes their prison, and heard with our own ears their cries for mercy. The truths of faith are more certain than those things to which our senses testify, and it is truly a Catholic spirit to believe them as thoroughly, and act upon them as fearlessly and unhesitatingly.
O dearly beloved! if we could only behold the joy that lights up the countenances of these blessed souls, when our prayers are heard in heaven, and their angel comes and blows aside from them the flames that torment them, and tells them that years are blotted from their sentences, and that soon they will again behold the face of God, I think we should pray night and day incessantly for them. Oh, it is a truly noble work; there is no charity to be compared with it. It is good to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, but it is the highest office of charity to visit the suffering saints, and restore them to their places as princes of the court of heaven. And when we remember that amongst these suffering saints are some of our own flesh and blood, who loved us in this world, and whom we loved, the father or mother, to whom we owe whatever good we possess, the brother or sister, whose affection was the one joy and support of our youth, it is not charity alone that demands our prayers, but pity and justice and gratitude. And if we neglect them, whatever we may profess to be, we cannot free ourselves from the imputation of being uncharitable, unjust, impious, and ungrateful.
I exhort you, therefore, dear beloved, to pray for the souls in purgatory, to whose special remembrance this day is devoted. Pray for them, that through your prayers not only they may be admitted to the glory of God, but also you may share in the reward which our Lord promised in the words: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy!”