Purgatory and All Souls (Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed)

The contrast between the feast of All Saints and the memorial of All Souls is stark: On November 1, the liturgical colors are festive white and/or gold which is a sign of the rejoicing in the heroic lives of the saints; but on November 2, the standard color is purple or black signifying Christian grief and the need to pray for the souls of our beloved dead.

Why would the Church put these two commemorations so close together? It almost seems like too much of an emotional roller coaster. While we are indeed reminded on All Saints Day that there are some who already dwell in the heavenly abode, All Souls Day reminds us that there are still many who are being purified of their sinful or earthly attachments in order to enjoy fully the Beatific Vision, that is, perfect union with the Most Holy Trinity. All Souls Day reminds us that there is an intermediate state between earthly life and heavenly life.

While the word “purgatory” is not mentioned explicitly in the Holy Bible, the Catholic Church did not simply invent this doctrine. It is implicitly taught in Sacred Scripture (see Rev 21:27; Mt 5:26; 1 Cor 3:15; 2 Tim 1:16-18) and is part of Apostolic Tradition (the Fathers, for example, Sts. Cyprian, John Chrysostom, and Augustine all mention this intermediate state). Purgatory is similar to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation in that the concepts are present in Scripture while the formulation of the terms comes later.

As with many Catholic doctrines that are misunderstood (even by Catholics!), there are a few myths about purgatory. One myth is that purgatory is for those who were not good enough to go to heaven but not bad enough to go to hell. Another myth is that purgatory is a “second chance” for those who did not live justly in this life. However, in this life, we only get one shot. A person is judged by God immediately at the moment of death.

Objectively, those who die in unrepented mortal sin go to hell; those who die in the perfect state of grace go straight to heaven. The problem is that most people probably do not die in the perfect state of grace. One may be attached to earthly things or venial sins; or one might have been addicted to certain mortal sin(s) at one time, and even after sacramental confession, still suffers the evil effects. God may grant a man eternal life through the merits of Jesus Christ and according to how well these merits were manifested in his faith and works, but because he needs to be purified of all that is “not of God,” God purifies him through this process we call purgatory.Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI taught that the“purifying fire” of purgatory is none other than the fire of Jesus Christ Himself, the fire of His love refining the soul to be able to enjoy heavenly life free of tainted love (see Spe Salvi, 47).

We must pray that Christ purifies the souls of our deceased loved ones (and of all souls), not only that they may fully participate in the joy of all the angels and saints, but that we ourselves may receive healing in our loss as we continue on our earthly journey in Christ and toward Christ.

Reflection by Fr. Nolan Lowry, STL, is the paster of St. Leo the Great Parish in Centerville, Texas.