Vicar for Communications Fr Robert Christo, in a conversation with the Catholic News, explains the importance of ‘purgatory’ in Catholic theology and belief in what happens after death.
The Solemnities of All Saints’ and All Souls’ “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live forever with Christ. They are like God for ever, for they ‘see him as he is’, face to face”—Catechism of the Catholic Church
In Catholic tradition, the month of November is dedicated to contemplation on the four last things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. On the first two days the Solemnity of All Saints’ and All Souls’ are celebrated consecutively.
All Saints’ Day celebrates those unsung heroes who have not been canonised. St Paul says we are all called to be saints, and we believe in the Communion of Saints; all who are in heaven are saints, pure.
All Souls’, November 2, is celebrated from the evening of November 1 because in Jewish tradition, the new day begins on the evening before. The origins of the lighting up of graves are around 835 AD which coincided with the establishment of the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, where the memory of all saints and martyrs, both known and unknown, and the souls believed to be in purgatory were prayed for respectively.
Martyred in obscurity, their graves were lit to mark them out as Christians; the lit candles signalled their life in Christ beyond the grave. The day is spent both in cleaning and lighting up the graves, homes and streets in memory of those family members who have passed, and praying for souls believed to be in purgatory.
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”—Catechism of the Catholic Church
Purgatory can be a contentious area of Catholic theology for the simple reason that the word ‘purgatory’ is not stated directly in the Bible. Pope Benedict says if it never existed we almost have to invent it.
Simply, purgatory exists as an intermediate state because a person may not be ‘too good’ to go to Heaven and not ‘bad enough’ to go to hell.
We believe that it is not anti-scriptural due to the many Biblical references. In 2 Maccabees 12:42–45, Judas “made atonement for the dead that they may be delivered from their sin.”
The dead are men who had sinned by wearing symbols of pagan gods, yet when they died, they had “fallen asleep in godliness.” The passage sets the context for praying for and offering services for the souls of the deceased: “For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.”
According to Beginning Apologetics: The End Times: “They sinned, yes, but still died in godliness so their sin had to be non-mortal, or venial. And venial sin, not mortal, is forgivable after death.”
The doctrine of purgatory can be further clarified with the distinction between ‘mortal sin’ and ‘venial sin’. ‘Sin is sin’, some people say, but this is not so.
Imagine a simple scenario: if found guilty of murder, and another steals sugar, should the latter go to hell with a murderer, unrepented? Is it the same? Mortal sin is grave and kills the soul; venial sin does not kill the soul.
John 5: 16–17 distinguishes between the two: “If any sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.”
There are also the issues of guilt and reparation. In 2 Samuel: 13–14, in a conversation between Nathan and David, even while David acknowledged his sin, Nathan says to him: “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.” Reparation for the sin David committed was still necessary.
For every sin there is a reaction. If you touch fire, you would be sorry you did, but you will still feel the burning sensation. Those who die with venial sin, but with grace, enter purgatory to go through a process of purification before they can enter Heaven.
‘The Book of Revelations’ says that nothing impure can enter Heaven. Purgatory is God’s final act of mercy and love.