March 16, 2006


What happens in purgatory?
What is the suffering of purgatory?
What about prayers for the deceased?

Friar Jack’s Inbox:

Readers reflect on Friar Jack’s musings

Catechism Quiz—
Purgatory (Part II)

by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.

What happens in purgatory?

Let’s review Church teaching on purgatory: “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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1030). You will notice that the Church does not specify the kind of purification that takes place, so often described by mystics in private revelations as a “terrible fire.” As we know, mystical experiences provide revelation that is considered non-binding on the whole Church. Mystics are also affected by their own culture and personalities. But there is a purification; that we know from a long tradition of Christian teaching (see my last column).

So, what is the best way to describe purgatory? Some view God as punisher, imposing pain and suffering until a person is finally cleansed. Yet, the image of God that Jesus gives through his own actions while dealing with sinners is that of healer—not one who causes pain. We become aware in life that suffering does not come from God but is imposed on humanity by man himself. God warns us of the suffering linked with sin. However, we still sin—and suffer. Wars come from human pride and greed, not from God. Cancer is not imposed on humans as punishment; it results from human imperfection, the fractured existence humanity has on earth and man’s inhumanity to man. God is not mean or vicious; nor does he enjoy seeing people in terrible pain.

What is the suffering of purgatory?

An image comes to mind that may describe the suffering of purgatory. It is based on what is almost a universal experience for people. When a loved one dies—a parent, a spouse or a child—we all know it brings one of the most painful experiences we can have: grief. A key element of that grief is the terrible regret people feel. Why regret? Isn’t it true that we always think of how much more we could have loved the person who has died? Soon after a death, we see a thousand things we could have done for that person. We often see ourselves as selfish. If nine out of 10 times we were loving, what we remember is the one time we were not loving. We were angry when we were not justified. We neglected that person who showed us so much love. And no matter what we did, now that the person is gone, there loom before us memories of what we did not do but could have done. Even worse, it’s what we might have done deliberately to cause hurt. Grief and regret are painful indeed.

Now imagine seeing God face-to-face and fully realizing his infinite love for us. Then we grasp the suffering and sacrifice Jesus experienced for us. We see clearly all the love and grace God offered. We look and it seems to be the size of the Pacific Ocean. We ask, “Lord, how much of your love and grace did we appreciate and respond to?” And God gives us a teaspoon and says, “This much!” The pain of realizing what might have been and seeing our sins for what they truly are now weighs down upon us more than we can imagine.

Perhaps this pain results not from a punishing God, but from one who still loves us infinitely, even as we realize how much more we could have loved him. The grief suffered is part of the pain endured until a time when we come to heal and realize that God’s love for us has saved us despite our sins. The barrier of our pride and self-pity is finally healed and released so that our union with God has no more barriers and it is total and complete: We are in perfect union with God; we are in heaven.

What about prayers for the deceased?

Because we are all one family of God and because we care for each other in our relationships, it is perfectly good that we pray for our loved ones and for all the souls in the state of purgatory. We pray because we love. We do not know how God uses what we offer, but we trust and believe that all we need to do is put our prayers and offerings in his hands. and our efforts have their effect. In every Mass that is offered, we as the body of Christ pray for all the souls in purgatory waiting to be purified and perfect.

Is purgatory non-essential? Hardly. It all has to do with our relationship with God.

Friar Jack’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jack’s musings on “The Beatitudes: Eight Attitudes for a Holy Lent.”

Dear Friar Jack: I direct a full-time faith-based volunteer program and sometimes forward your E-spirations to the volunteers who serve in our program. I found your “Beatitudes for a Holy Lent” very good. I’ll concede that taking license with Scripture translation is fully within the Catholic tradition. But I found one word in your reflection to be a bit troubling. In the first beatitude you choose the word heaven as opposed to reign of or Kingdom of God. I agree that as Christians, heaven is an important aspect of our salvation, but it is explicitly otherworldly. The following seven reflections are for the "here and now." The chapters in Matthew before and after Chapter 5 point to “calling” and a “here-and-now” mission and not to an afterlife. The use of the word heaven weakens the message that we, the Church, are to build up the world we live in. There are plenty of other Scriptures that point to heaven, but this one points to our mission to changing the here and now. Just my thoughts. John

Dear John: I fully agree with your point that our mission is to serve God and neighbor in the “here and now,” and that we should not restrict our focus to the next life. Yet Jesus is both with us here on earth (“I am with you always,” as we read in Matthew 28:20) as well as with his Father in heaven, to whom he ascended. We are not talking about an either/or but a both/and in these matters. As a matter of fact, the first beatitude in Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” is translated by the words “kingdom of heaven,” not “Kingdom of God” (see Matthew 5:3), while Luke in his “Sermon on the Plain” uses the expression “Kingdom of God” (6:20). These two expressions really end up meaning pretty much the same thing. Thanks for stressing that we should not forget that a very important part of our mission relates to the “here and now.” All the best! Friar Jack

Dear Friar Jack: When you visit the shrine of St. Francis Xavier, please spare a prayer for the places he evangelized. Malacca, where he evangelized and was first buried before he was reburied in Goa, is in Malaysia, a Muslim country. The original burial site, the church of St. Paul's, stands in ruins. The Jesuits did not officially return to Malacca (Melaka) until 500 years later when Paul Tan, S.J., was consecrated bishop of Malacca-Johor in May 2003. The Church in Malaysia struggles to survive. The young people are not interested; the priests are getting older. There is much bureaucracy. Please pray for the Church in the East. Katherine

Dear Katherine: Thanks for your email from far away. Like so many e-mail responses from other nations, your message reminds the reader that Friar Jack’s E-spirations truly reach a global audience. When our pilgrimage group visits the shrine of St. Francis Xavier in Spain this spring, we will certainly pray for the countries he evangelized like Goa (India), Malaysia and Japan. I’m sure that many readers will pause right now and pray for the “Church in the East,” especially our sisters and brothers in Malaysia. St. Francis Xavier, pray for all of us! May God bring this world to peace and unity! Friar Jack


Join Friar Jack on pilgrimage

Friar Jack is leading an 11-day pilgrimage to Lisbon, Fatima, Spain and Lourdes (France) May 15-25, 2006. In Lisbon, you visit the birthplace of St. Anthony of Padua and related sites nearby. Other pilgrimage highlights in Portugal include Our Lady’s Shrine at Fatima. In Spain, you visit the birthplaces and shrines of four famous Spanish saints: Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary. Your pilgrimage ends with a three-day visit to Lourdes, France. Cost (from Cincinnati): $2,199.

For more information, call Pentecost Tours at 1-800-713-9800 or e-mail at (address: P.O. Box 280, Batesville, IN 47006-0280). Request a free brochure with full itinerary and details from Pentecost Tours or from Friar Jack .

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