Adapted from my journal last year...
It being November, today is the feast of All Souls, or The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, as my missal has it.
I was somewhat bemused just before All Souls' Day last year when a dear Anglican friend asked me whether Catholics celebrate All Saints’ day, or “All Hallows”, as she called it; we do, I thought, surprised that Anglicans celebrated the day, and wondering what it meant for them; Catholics believe the saints in heaven are praying for us and acting for us and can be addressed by us as we seek their prayers, but I’m not sure what Anglicans believe on this score.
The funeral rites of the Church of England’s official prayer-book say of each dead Christian that he or she died “in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life”, but I don’t think Anglicans, as a rule, believe that the saints can intercede for us; indeed, I’ve been quizzed in the past about why it is that I think the saints are even aware of our prayers, let alone that they can act in response to them.
The confidence of the Anglicans’ “sure and certain hope” seems to me unwarranted, in any case; while it’s easy to believe that the greatest of our predecessors were graced by God in this life and are now blessed by him and partaking in the Divine Vision, but what about the rest of us? What about those of us who’ve done monstrous things, who are not merely sinners but who are, by sheer force of habit, sinful? What about ordinary plodders like me and probably most of us, who try to love God and live as he wishes us to, but who stumble and fall through our lives, and leave this world sullied and stained by the muck of our human frailty – what of us?
The Bible’s pretty clear that nothing imperfect can enter heaven and just as gold must be refined by flame, so too those of us who are not purified in life are purified in death by God’s consuming fire; Catholics used to envisage Purgatory as a mountain we climb towards heaven, confident of our ultimate and eternal destination, but whether we think of Purgatory as a place or as a process or as an event, we cannot get away from how for Catholics the Church is seen as a Divine ecology, where we seek the prayers of our brethren in heaven, while offering prayers for our brethren in Purgatory. We all help each other.
“Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory,’” sneers Thomas Cromwell to himself, mentally addressing Thomas More, in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. More, of course, wouldn’t accept the premise of the question: “Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Trinity’,” he might counter, before explaining that though Catholic teaching must always be in harmony with the Bible, it does not and never has originated with the Bible; the Church came first, after all, and the Bible was written within and canonised by the Church as a book – indeed, as the book – of the Church. And he could have pointed to plenty of reasons outside the Bible for the Catholic belief.
Still, he might then have indulged Cromwell by pointing to how 2 Maccabees 12:39-45 shows how the ancient Jews who rededicated the Temple before Our Lord’s day believed that prayers for the dead mattered, and if they mattered, one is forced to wonder how; the blessed hardly needed our prayers, and they surely couldn’t benefit the damned. Jesus seems never to have condemned this practice, and evidently joined in celebrating the Maccabees’ achievements, so it seems he agreed with this, and even in Cromwell and More’s own day, as now, Jews would pray for the purification of their brethren after they died. Again the question must be “why?”
Of course, Cromwell would counter by saying that he didn’t regard either book of Maccabees as being part of the Bible, glossing over how More would simply have cited it as a historical attestation to a practice that had continued through Our Lord’s time into their own day, with a belief implied by that practice, rather than as an inspired Scriptural mandate, so More would probably have been forced to look elsewhere.
Nothing unclean shall enter Heaven, according to Revelation 21:27, and after death what we’ve done will be tested by fire, with some of us being saved through fire with our badness burned away, if 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 is to be believed. God, after all, as Malachi 3:2-3 points out, is like a refiner’s fire; he purifies us, refining us like silver and gold till we can “present right offerings to the Lord”.
One of the great works of mercy the Church requires of us, according to the famous image of the Sheep and the Goats at Matthew 25:31-46, is that of visiting those in prison. Oddly, though, prison is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament; aside from in that dramatic image of the Last Judgment, Jesus only mentions it when talking of people being put in prison until their debt is paid, notably at Matthew 18:23-35 and Matthew 5:25-26, where he juxtaposes “prison”, with those in prison not being released till they have “paid the last penny”, with Hell, from where there is no release.
It’s clear from the text that Jesus isn’t talking of earthly imprisonment, which invites the question of what this prison is where we can be placed till we have paid the last penny – and it’s worth remembering how the New Testament tends to use the language of debt when speaking of sin. Could this be the same prison that 1 Peter 3:19 has in mind in referring to how, after the Crucifixion, Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison”?
The word “Purgatory” may not appear in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean the doctrine isn’t there, readily drawn out from references to prayers that help the dead, to a fire that purifies us after death, and to a prison where souls go till their debts are paid.
Just as it’s for the Blessed to pray for us, so it is for us, then, to visit those souls in prison, praying for those destined for heaven that they may be purified less painfully and may more quickly reach the top of Dante’s mountain of hope.
With that in mind, then, I pray today for all those for whom I prayed this time last year, and also those, dear to me and dear to those near to me, who have joined them over the past year, including Christy Bailey, Agueda Pons, David Fitzgerald, Mary Ward, Tom O'Gorman, Michael Kerrigan, Marian Emerson, Kitty Temple, Michael Heywood, Christine Buckley, Agnes and John Ainsworth, Tom Savage, Clare Edmonds, Spiros Polyzotis, Audrey Gilligan, Phyllis Shea, Brian Spittal, Noel Sweeney, Joe Harris, and Father Martin Ryan.
May the Lord God almighty have mercy on their souls, and may his perpetual light shine upon them; may they rest in peace.