When I was a Protestant, there were things I thought I knew about the Catholic Church, things I knew I didn’t know about the Catholic Church, but didn’t want to learn, and then a box marked, “Everything Else”.
During my conversion process, that “Everything Else” box grew bigger and bigger as I slowly acquainted myself with this strange new religion that familiarity had convinced me I knew everything about, but pride had kept me ignorant of. One of the most beautiful, exotic jewels I discovered in that box was All Souls Day.
Growing up Presbyterian, everyone went to Heaven. And they went there immediately upon the death rattle. It wasn’t that there was an unshakable certainty in each souls’ eternal reward, it was just that it was gauche to suggest people other than the Hitlers and Jeffrey Dahmers of humanity went to hell, and there was no other option in Protestant theology. So everyone, from the drunken uncle who didn’t exactly abuse his wife, but certainly made her life uncomfortable, to the coworker who never once, in the 20 years you worked with her, so much as mentioned God, went immediately and directly to their heavenly rest.
It was an odd system, one that not only ignored God’s perfect Justice, but also made His perfect Mercy something cheap and tawdry.
During the RCIA process, I’d bought a copy of the Catechism, and I read it, cover to cover, in the evenings after the kids had gone to bed. The day I was introduced to the topic of Purgatory was a life-changer for me:
1030 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.
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”609 From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.
When I dug this jewel out of the box of Catholic teaching, it was both beautiful and terrifying. It was beautiful because it finally gave due respect to both God’s justice and His mercy. It was terrifying because it sounded like it involved pain.
I don’t like pain.
The next week, I marched into the priest’s office, my copy of the Catechism dog-eared to the offending section. I slapped it down on his desk and pointed at the part about Purgatory.
“It says here that Purgatory is like burning,” I said to him, with that aggression that is born of fear. “Is that true? If it is, I’m out. I’m not going to do this whole conversion thing just to end up burning in the afterlife anyway.”
Clearly, I was in desperate need of religious education. And the more I learned about Purgatory, the more grateful for it I became. I was so grateful for the generosity of God, who give us the security of justice, but also the security of mercy. I was so grateful knowing that there was a system in place for me to purify myself of the vices I may fail to shed in this life. From a purely human, flawed point of view, it was somehow easier to envision not-so-stellar people enjoying the bliss of heaven if I remembered they had some soul cleaning to endure first.
With that realization, came the understanding that there were people, unknown numbers of people, currently undergoing the purification. My heart broke for them- those who knew they were destined to be united with God in Heaven, but were still undergoing that fire of final sanctification. What did that fire feel like? How deeply did it burn?
But, like the loving mother she is, the Church doesn’t just shrug her shoulders and let the soul in Purgatory burn in isolation. Rather, she gives us, the living, chance after chance to help our brothers and sisters along in their purification. Prayers, indulgences, alms and fasting are all ways we can help, and All Souls Day is like the Super Bowl for helping out purgatorial souls.
Coming down off the high of All Saints day, the Church asks us to remember those who’ve gone before us, who will eventually take their place among the angels and saints, but haven’t gotten there yet. And so take a moment to remember those poor souls, who can’t even whisper a shred of prayer for themselves anymore. Say a decade of the Rosary for them. Light a candle for them. Even better, go to a cemetery to do so. Firmly ground yourself in the physical reality that all our lives have an expiration date, and someday, by the grace of God, it’ll be us in Purgatory, burning off those last imperfections, gratefully accepting the prayers of the living.