In a few days the Church will celebrate one of the most profound feasts in the liturgical calendar: the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Coming the day after the Solemnity of All Saints, this feast of All Souls focuses on those who comprise that group within the Church that resides between the Church Militant on earth and the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Commonly referred to as the Church Suffering, this portion of the Body of Christ is made up of all of those souls who have, as the liturgy proclaims, “gone before us marked with the sign of faith” and who have yet to reach their heavenly reward. In short, these are the souls in purgatory.
The beginnings of the doctrine of purgatory appear in the Old Testament book of 2nd Maccabees where Judas Maccabeus “made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin,” and “he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who have gone to rest in godliness.” This text was written about a century before the coming of Christ, and thus it both predates any Christian sense of purgatory and shows the Hebrew roots of that doctrine.
So, for over two millennia there has been in our Tradition a belief in purgatory and in the efficacy of prayers for those who are members of the Church Suffering. Since the time of the Second Vatican Council this doctrine, along with the practice of praying for the dead, has fallen upon hard times. Many, if not most, Catholics have somehow come to the belief that “Vatican II got rid of purgatory.” This misconception is often given credence by those who, in an attempt to speak well of the dead, can unintentionally turn a funeral Mass into a canonization ceremony.
Cardinal-elect Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, would, I’m sure, take umbrage with this approach to our beloved dead. Not only would he be out of work if the only sign necessary for the declaration of a saint was the lack of a heartbeat, but this common belief does a great disservice to those who are still making their way to the Beatific Vision.
As purgatory has fallen by the wayside so has the practice of imitating Judas Maccabeus by praying for the dead as well as its corollary of “offering up” our sufferings for the “poor souls in purgatory.” Yet, that practice is at the heart of the Catholic belief in the Communion of Saints, for, as many a theologian has pointed out over the centuries, we are not brought to salvation alone. The most obvious indicator of this belief is the Communion Rite of the Mass as we all, together, in communion, share in the fruits of the sacrifice of Christ.
As pointed out by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1984 apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris: “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” To share in that redemptive suffering is to share in the salvific work of Jesus. When we “offer up” our sufferings, great or small, for others – especially those in purgatory – we are uniting ourselves both to the Cross of Christ and to those who will benefit from its offering.
This offering of one’s difficulties to Christ on behalf of others is a true act of love because it takes what can easily be a source of self-pity and victimhood and turns it to the good of those in need. I can’t help but be reminded of the incredible act of love performed by Jim Skerl ’74 who, as he lay dying at home in a rented hospital bed, prayed for and offered his sufferings for those people who had died in that bed before him.
As the weather turns colder and as the leaves fall off the trees our thoughts naturally turn to the unavoidable mortality of this life. We long for a warm fire and the gathering of loved ones around it, and we call to mind those who, sadly, are no longer there beside the fire. Let us do more than remember them: let us pray for them and offer our difficulties – including our missing of them – for their benefit in the certain hope that we will all be one day reunited as members of the Church Triumphant in that eternal home and hearth prepared for us by our loving Father.