During the month of November the liturgy of the Church and popular devotion turn our attention to what are traditionally called the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. This is no morbid fascination. Rather it is a sober reminder of the transitory nature of this world and a bold summons to Christian hope. We began the month celebrating the saints in glory on All Saints Day. On November 2 we observed the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day) and later in the month, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we will celebrate the triumphant Solemnity of Christ the King. Though we may not like to think about these ultimate realities, they are inescapable for each of us. They remind us of the eternal destiny that God has prepared for us in Christ and the eternal consequences of turning our back on God’s love. St. John of the Cross wrote, “In the evening of our life, we shall be judged on our love”. Perfect love will make possible our immediate entrance into heaven. Imperfect love will require purification. A total lack of love will mean eternal separation from God.
God has made us for heaven where we will discover the perfect fulfillment of all human longing in supreme and eternal happiness. We can not even begin to imagine the joy God has prepared for us in heaven. The Bible uses images such as a wedding banquet and the Father’s house, to help us get a glimpse of the happiness of heaven. In heaven we know that we will enjoy perfect communion in love with the most Holy Trinity and all of the angels and saints. Jesus Christ has won this victory for us by his death and his Resurrection from the dead.
At the other end of the spectrum is the frightful rejection of love which is hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God” (CCC 1035) who alone is our supreme and ultimate fulfillment. In choosing to persist in sin those who are condemned to hell have freely rejected God’s love and his call to repentance. “God predestines no one to go to hell” (CCC 1037). He desires only our happiness. But he will not and cannot violate our freedom and force us to love him. In that sense, hell is of our own making and choosing.
Those who die in the state of friendship with God but who are not fully perfected in love are assured of salvation, but they must first undergo further purification of the effects of their sins. Only those who are perfected in love and holiness are able to bear the weight of glory and enter into the presence of the Most Holy Trinity. This process of purification after death is called Purgatory. “The Church gives the name Purgatory to the final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).
We really do not know precisely what Purgatory is. It is often described in terms of a purifying fire. The image of fire helps us recognize that perfect love is achieved only through a painful stripping away of the remnants of self-centeredness that cling to us keep us from loving freely and totally.
In the Communion of Saints we are united with fellow believers on earth, with the suffering souls in Purgatory as well as the blessed in heaven. In this wonderful communion of life and love we are able to assist and be assisted by the prayers and good works of one another.
The Church is always mindful of the duty to assist those in Purgatory especially through the Eucharist. We remember the faithful departed in the Eucharistic Prayer of every Mass. But we also have the opportunity to request that Masses be offered for the deceased. It is a beautiful practice and an act of charity to have Masses offered, especially for our departed loved ones. As an expression of the mystery of the Communion of Saints the Church also permits us to obtain indulgences and apply them in charity toward the souls in Purgatory.
Though it is our Christian duty to be always mindful of the faithful departed, the month of November is an opportune time. On All Souls Day we come to the aid our deceased brothers and sisters by special remembrances at Masses as well as by other local and often colorful ethnic customs. In many cultures it is the day set aside to visit the graves of deceased family members. By visiting these hallowed places we honor the dead and by our prayers we assist them as they await the fulfillment of their hope, that is, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.