Saint Augustine, in his autobiography The Confessions, records so movingly his last moments with his mother, Saint Monica, as she lay dying, still only in her mid-fifties, in the Roman suburb of Ostia. Augustine and his brother were overcome with grief, and were discussing the practicalities of the funeral arrangements for their mother.
Monica had begun to lapse into unconsciousness, but in a moment of lucidity, she gave her sons clear instructions which have come to us down through the centuries. She said, “Bury this body anywhere, and take no trouble over it. I ask of you only this: that you remember me, wherever you may be, at the Altar of the Lord.”
II. … that they may be absolved of their sin
On this Commemoration day of the all the Faithful Departed, All Souls’ Day, we carry in our hearts and minds all those we have known and loved in this life: our family members, friends, mentors and benefactors – and even those whose path in life never crossed our own – and we do exactly what Saint Monica asked of her son, Saint Augustine: we remember them at the Altar of the Lord.
In the Second Book of Maccabees, we read, “if [we] were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if this were done with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus atonement is made for the dead, that they might be absolved from their sin.”
This is why the Mass is offered for those “who have gone before us with the sign of faith.” Indeed our prayers, particularly the most perfect prayer of all – the Mass – powerfully aid our loved ones who have died. Now if a particular person for whom we pray is already in Heaven, we know that God will hear our prayers, and in his mercy, will apply those prayers to those who can benefit from them. Likewise, for those who, by their own free will, their selfishness, & their refusal to love have chosen the unendingly horrible state of eternal separation from God, that choice is definitive, and our prayers can no longer help them. So when we pray for the dead, we are praying for those who are being purified in the state known to us as Purgatory.
III. Even so, Sir
But what is Purgatory? Does it still exist? How are we to understand it? I assure you that the existence of Purgatory remains part of our faith, and very consolingly so. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing the Council of Florence, the Council of Trent, and the writings of Saints Peter and Paul, puts it this way: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but [who are] 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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”
C.S. Lewis puts this teaching in very understandable terms. He writes, “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you for these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’
‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’”
IV. The Dream of Gerontius
While you and I are still on this side of eternity, we feel keenly the pain of separation, aware as we are that death was not something intended by God in the beginning. The separation of the body and soul at the moment of death is a consequence of the disorder introduced into the world by sin and rebellion against the will of God. Conversely, we see that Our Lady, whose Immaculate Conception preserved her from all stain of sin, did not experience this separation of body and soul, nor the corruption of the grave. Rather, when the course of her earthly life was ended, she was assumed, body and soul to the glory of heaven.
But when we think of those we have loved and who have gone before us into eternity, we cannot but experience some sadness. The very human emotion of mourning was also experienced by Jesus, who “shared our human nature in all things but sin” and who wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. This finds expression in the black vestments of today’s Mass, and in the black clothing often worn at funerals by family members of the deceased. Yet as Saint Paul reminds us, we who have faith in Christ and who, through baptism, share in his victory over death, “do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.”
Soon after his reception into the Church, Blessed John Henry Newman composed an beautiful poem, The Dream of Gerontius, which follows the journey of the soul of a dying Catholic man, Gerontius, from his deathbed, as he passes over the waters of death, and is conducted by his Guardian Angel to Purgatory.
Just before his Guardian Angel takes leave of Gerontius, whom he had guarded and guided during this course of his life on earth just ended, the angel turns to him and says with love,
Farewell, but not for ever! Brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee – on the morrow.