For not a few devout Catholics prayer for the dead is a matter of “freeing the soul from purgatory.” There’s something to that, and it’s certainly good practice to pray for those who have died, but sometimes it seems that the idea of “purgatory” (meaning the purification of those who have died before they can enter the presence of God) gets mixed up with the idea of prison: that it’s a place, and that its purpose is punishment. ‘Tain’t necessarily so.
Our church teaches that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but 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.” (CCC, 1030-1) Notice the emphasis on process, not place. And notice that the process is “entirely different” from punishment.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, before he was elected pope, wrote a book that had some interesting things to say about this teaching. Here’s a crucial bit:
Purgatory is not…some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God [i.e., capable of full unity with Christ and God] and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. …What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.– Josef Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (1988)
In short, Cardinal Ratzinger’s (as he was then) view is that the encounter with Christ at our death is itself what purifies us – “Encounter with the Lord is the transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.”
Here’s a summary of the teaching of another great twentieth-century theologian, the German Jesuit Karl Rahner:
Rahner…attempted to combine Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching on the place of the soul between death and resurrection. Instead of concentrating on what he saw as the over-individualized concern with the fate of a particular soul, he supposed that after death the soul becomes more closely united with the cosmos as a whole, through which process, while still awaiting the resurrection, the soul becomes more aware of the effects of its own sin on the world in general. This, he suggested, would be purgatory enough.– N. T. Wright, For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (2003)
So as we remember and pray for all those who have died, especially today, we can take comfort in the teaching of our church about them (and about our own future). Keeping our hope based on Christ, we have nothing to fear. Until next week, peace.