By Fr. Thom Hennen
Question Box Column
Q. Why do we pray for souls in purgatory?
A. In moments of exasperation with myself I have sometimes said to God, “If you need me to turn out the lights in purgatory, I will do it!” In other words, if I am the last person in purgatory I am
okay with that because at least I will know I am heaven-bound. I am only half-joking. Of course, I would much rather march straight into heaven but I am painfully aware of my own weakness, pettiness and attachment to sin. For me, as for most, I think something will need to happen between the moment I breathe my last and the glory that awaits the blessed. That something is purgatory.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “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” (par. 1030). Heaven is by definition a state of absolute perfection. Even if I die a good man, a good disciple, a good priest, as I hope to do (not too soon, mind you), there likely will be aspects of my life that are less than perfect. These might not merit hell but they still have no place in heaven. Purgatory is simply that state of transition in which these lesser faults are purified and any lingering sinful attachments are resolved.
However, the souls in purgatory are no less part of the one body of Christ and remain connected to us. We used to speak of this as the “church militant,” meaning those of us still “fighting the good fight” during our earthly life; the “church suffering,” meaning the souls of the faithful departed undergoing their final purification; and the “church triumphant,” meaning the saints (canonized or not) now living forever in perfect communion of love with God. Just as we can do something about those suffering in this life, we believe we can also do something to aid the “church suffering” in purgatory. We can pray for them. Again, the Catechism states, “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (par. 1032). To pray for the souls in purgatory is, therefore, a generous spiritual work of mercy.
I think there are some people who have died in a state of perfection, among them many of the canonized saints of our tradition. Many of them, in a sense, did their purgatory here on earth and through their suffering became more perfectly conformed to their crucified Lord. When they died, they had largely let go of anything that would have been a hindrance to their fully embracing God’s love in heaven. I believe many people today still work out a lot of their purgatory here on earth, insofar as they unite their suffering to the perfect suffering of Christ.
Many Catholics think of purgatory as a sad, dark teaching long past its time, but to me it is a beautiful expression of God’s love and mercy. I hope that when I die people will pray for me and have Masses offered for me and not just assume that I am “up there playing pinochle with St. Peter.” I don’t know how to play pinochle, but I’m guessing St. Peter can teach me …when I’m ready.
(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org)