At this time of the year we focus on the dead and we pray especially for them. The feast of All Saints reminds us of all our loved ones who are in heaven. Everyone in heaven is a saint. We celebrate particular saints, canonised saints, because of their witness and holiness of life, but everyone in heaven is a saint. The day after All Saints, is The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, also known as All Souls day, when we remember those who have died, but are not yet in heaven. I like this time of praying for the dead, because for me it is a kind of healthy focus on reality.
The one thing all of us are sure of is that we will die and it is good to be reminded of that every so often. Since we believe that we are destined for heaven, then we have nothing to be afraid of if we try to do what is right, but it is important not to take it for granted. Jesus tells us many times in the Gospels that we can lose heaven, if we are foolish. We must never take it for granted.
When we die, probably not many people are ready to come directly into the intense holiness of God’s presence. It would be too much for us. Think of when you wake up in the morning and you turn on the bed-side light. You turn away your eyes because you are not used to the light yet. Imagine getting the direct light of the sun? It would be unbearable for us. We have to gradually get used to it. Purgatory is something like this. It is the last stage of being made ready, before we can come into God’s presence; a purgation, or purification. It is also when we may have to atone for sins from our lives. People often scoff at this idea, but think of it this way: imagine someone who has lived a life of terrible evil, like Hitler, or Stalin. Millions of people died because of their evil choices. Suppose that shortly before they died, they looked back at their life and realized how much evil they had done and repented of it. They begged God for mercy. God promises his mercy to anyone who sincerely repents. So if they died the following day, would they go straight to heaven? That doesn’t make any sense. They would need to atone for their sin. That is what purgatory is. It is a final stage of purification.
The Lord has also taught us that we can help those who have died by praying for them. That’s why we dedicate a whole month to remembering them.
There was a lady from Austria by the name of Maria Simma (1915-2004). For many years of her life she experienced a very unusual gift, that is, she was visited by the Holy Souls (souls in purgatory), who asked her for prayers. God granted her this gift of interceding for them, no doubt also to help us to believe in the reality of what happens after death. There is a short book about her called, ‘The Amazing Secret of the Souls in Purgatory: An Interview with Maria Simma.’ I think it is worth reading.
The first time it happened she was in her twenties. One night she woke to find a man in her bedroom slowly pacing up and down. She said, ‘How did you get in here? Go away!’ but he ignored her. She tried to grab him, but there was only air. The following day she went to her priest and told him what had happened and asked what she should do. He told her that if it happened again she should ask him what he wanted from her. It happened again the following night and when she asked, What do you want from me?’ he said, ‘Have three masses offered for me and I will be delivered.’
When the souls came to ask her for prayers, many of them would tell her why they were in purgatory. What comes across more than anything else is the mercy of God.
One of the encounters that she had really struck me. She recalls that one night a young man of 20 appeared to her, asking her to pray for him. He told her why he was in purgatory. He had been quite a wild young man, with a bad reputation. He lived in the Alps and one winter his village was hit by a series of avalanches and many people were killed. One night when another avalanche struck, he heard the screams of people nearby for help and he ran down stairs to help them. His mother tried to stop him from going outside, knowing there was a good chance that he would be killed. When he went out he was in fact killed, but God allowed him to die at this time, because he was in the middle of doing something so good. In other words, God took him when he was at his best. I think that this is a wonderful way to understand what happens when people die. God does everything He can to help us. Such is the mercy of God. God will always give us the benefit of the doubt.
When she was asked to explain her understanding of purgatory, she said:
Suppose one day a splendid being appears, extremely beautiful, of a beauty that has never been seen on earth. You are fascinated, overwhelmed by this being of light and beauty, even more so that this being shows that he is madly in love with you—you have never dreamed of being loved so much. You sense too that he has a great desire to draw you to him, to be one with you. And the fire of love which burns in your heart impels you to throw yourself into his arms.
But wait—you realize at this moment that you haven’t washed for months and months, that you smell bad; your nose is running, your hair is greasy and matted, there are big dirty stains on your clothes, etc. So you say to yourself, “No, I just can’t present myself in this state. First I must go and wash: a good shower, then straight away I’ll come back.”
But the love which has been born in your heart is so intense, so burning, so strong, that this delay for the shower is absolutely unbearable. And the pain of the absence, even if it only lasts for a couple of minutes, is an atrocious wound in the heart, proportional to the intensity of the revelation of the love – it is a “love wound.”
That was her description of purgatory.
St. Pius of Pietrelcina, better known as Padre Pio, also experienced the same gift and he said that more people came to him from Purgatory asking for prayers, than pilgrims on earth. While it is natural to shed tears for them, it is more important to pray for them. We can help them by praying for them and offering the mass for them, which is the most powerful prayer there is.
How do we atone for sins? First we must ask for forgiveness: confession. Then we need to pray and perhaps to do penance of some kind. Also, almsgiving atones for sins.
In the book of Tobit, the angel Rafael is sent by God to heal Tobit who has gone blind, and to his son Tobias’ new wife who has been tormented by a demon. At the end of the book Rafael reveals himself to Tobit and Tobias. They had just thought he was a stranger who helped them. This is what Rafael said to them:
Bless God, return thanks to him, proclaim his glory and render him thanks before all the living for all he has done for you. It is good to praise God and exalt his name… Do not be slow in giving him thanks… It is a good thing to accompany prayer with fasting, almsgiving and justice… Almsgiving preserves from death. It purifies from all sin. (Tobit 12:6 ff).
When we die there can only be three things: heaven, hell, or purgatory. We are created for heaven. The death and resurrection of Jesus happened so that we could go to heaven when we die. If heaven is real and we have free will, then we must be able to lose heaven too. If we had no option but to go there, then we wouldn’t have free will. If heaven is the total fulfilment of being in God’s presence, light, beauty, happiness and the company of other people we love, then to lose it would be to be left with the opposite, that is, darkness, pain, isolation, hatred and the knowledge of knowing that we have lost the possibility of eternal happiness. God does not send people to hell. People choose hell by the way they live, rejecting God and everything to do with God. God respects the choices we make. Many places where Our Lady has appeared, she has shown the visionaries heaven, hell and purgatory, to remind us they are real. It is not something we should take lightly.
What about people who no longer go to Church, or no longer practice their faith? Just because they don’t practice, doesn’t mean they don’t believe in God or try to live the right way. It may mean that they cannot relate to organised religion as we do, but we should pray for them, because having a framework is a great help. Continually going to church is going to help us stay tuned in to what is important, to what God is asking us to do and reminding us of what is right and wrong. It is not so easy to do this by yourself.
What about people who have never known Jesus? People primarily accept or reject God by the way they live. Just because they don’t understand God as we do, doesn’t mean they don’t believe, or that they reject God. Only God can judge us. Our job is to pray for those who don’t know God and hopefully to help them come to know him, by they way we live. Most of the people Mother Teresa’s sisters take in off the streets in places like Calcutta, are not Christian, but they don’t try to convert them. They simply love them and allow them to die with dignity. They say more about what they believe by those actions than by anything you could say.
If we make even the smallest effort to live for God, to live as God asks us, then we have nothing to be afraid of. The Lord continually assures us of his love and mercy for all who seek him. The important thing is that we remember that our choices have consequences.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (Jn 14: