The Church condemns none to eternal torments. She publishes decrees to declare that one is in heaven; she has never published any to declare that another is in hell.
The Rev. Father de Ravignan (1795-1858) loved to speak of those mysteries of grace called into existence at the hour of death. His feeling seems to have been that a great number of sinners are converted at the last moment, and expire reconciled to God. There are in certain deaths hidden mysteries of mercy and strokes of grace, where the eye of man sees only strokes of justice. By a flash of light God sometimes reveals himself to souls whose greatest misfortune was not to have known Him; and the latest breath may be a sigh calling for pardon, understood by Him who hears it, and who sounds the heart.
Marshal Exelmans (1775-1852), who was precipitated into the grave by a fall from his horse, had neglected the practice of religion. He had promised to have recourse to confession but had not time to do so. Nevertheless, on the very day of his death, a person habituated to heavenly communications seemed to hear an inward voice saying: “Who can tell the extent of my mercy? Can anyone fathom the depths of the sea, and calculate the amount of its waters? Much will be forgiven to certain souls that have remained in ignorance of much.”
How do we explain these strokes of grace? By the value of a soul purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ and by the mercy that knows no limits; by some good work, almsdeed, or prayer of the sinner during life; by the invisible ministry of the guardian angel, ever prompt to act, and ever ready to save his charge; by the preceding prayers of the just on earth and of the saints in heaven; but, more than all, by the intercession of the Virgin Mary; in fine, by the prayers offered up for sinners after their death, even though they may have given no sign of repentance. It is to the explanation of this last point that I shall here confine myself.
You read with pleasure, in the work I have just mentioned, those lines of the holy religious written to comfort a queen whose son was killed by a fall from his carriage:
Christians beneath a law of hope, no less than one of faith and love, we must unceasingly raise our thoughts from the abyss of our afflictions to the heights of the infinite goodness of our Savior. As long as a single breath of life remains, no barrier is placed between the soul and grace. We must, therefore, always hope, and make humble and persevering intercession to the Lord. We cannot know to what degree it will be acceptable. Great saints and great Doctors have gone very far in speaking of this powerful efficacy of prayers for beloved souls, whatever may have been their end. We shall someday understand these ineffable wonders of the divine mercy, which we must never cease to invoke with the utmost confidence. (de Ponlevoy, Life of Father de Ravignan, chaps. 10, 21.)
St. John Chrysostom
The most eloquent of the archbishops of Constantinople, while arguing to prove that we must not mourn our dead with excess, but rather aid them by our prayers and works, imagines that one of his audience interrupts him, exclaiming: “But I mourn this dear deceased because he died a sinner.” What is the reply of St. John Chrysostom?
Is not this a vain pretext? For if such be the cause of your tears, why did you not make more effort to convert him while he lived? And if he really died a sinner, ought you not to rejoice that he can now no more increase the number of his sins?
You must, in the first place, go to his help, as far as you are able, not with tears, but with prayers, supplications, alms, and sacrifices. All these things are indeed not idle inventions. It is not without necessity that in the divine mysteries we commemorate the dead; it is not fruitlessly that we approach the altar with prayers for them to the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world; but by these means is consolation showered upon their souls. If Job could purify his children by offering sacrifice for them, how much more must He whom we offer up for our dead give them relief?
Is it not one of God’s ways to do good to some out of regard for others? Let us, then, show ourselves eager to aid our dear deceased and earnestly and perseveringly pray for them. The Mass is a general expiation by which all may profit. In the Mass, therefore, we pray for the whole universe, and we mention the dead with the martyrs, confessors, and priests of the Church; for we are all one body, though some members are more illustrious than others. It may be that we can even obtain for our deceased a complete pardon through the prayers and the merits offered for them by those in whose company they are named. Why, then, are you still in such grief? Why this despondency, these lamentations? May not so great a grace be obtained for him whom you have lost?(St. John Chrysostom, Homily 41 on 1 Corinthians)
Testament of St. Gertrude
We find, in the celebrated revelations of St. Gertrude (1256-c. 1302), an example confirmatory of this doctrine and placing it in a new light. A person had been informed of the death of one of her relations in Gertrude’s presence. This person, fearing that the deceased had not died in a state of grace, showed very great affliction. She experienced such trouble as to excite the emotion of the saint, who proposed to pray to God for the departed soul.
She began by saying to our Lord: “Thou couldst have inspired me with the thought and granted me the grace to pray for this soul, without being compelled to do so by tenderness or compassion.”
Jesus answered: “I take singular pleasure in the prayers addressed to me for the dead, when natural feeling is added to the goodwill that renders them meritorious, and when both concur to give this work of mercy all the plenitude and perfection it is capable of receiving.”
The abbess having afterward prayed long for this soul, became aware of its lamentable state; for it appeared to her frightfully deformed, as black as coal, and resembling a body writhing with intense pain. No spirits were, however, to be seen tormenting it; but evidently its former sins were acting as its executioners.
“Lord,” exclaimed the charitable religious, “wilt Thou not be propitiated by my prayers and pardon this man?”
“I would, for the love of thee,” replied the Divine Savior, “have pity not only on this soul, but on a million others.
Will thou, then, that I pardon him all his sins, and that I deliver him from every sort of penalty?”
“Perhaps,” said the saint, “this may not be in conformity with the requirements of Thy justice.”
“It would not be inconsistent with them,” added our Savior, “if thou were to ask me for it with confidence. For my divine light, piercing into the future, made known to me that thou would offer this prayer for him. Therefore, I placed good dispositions in his heart, to prepare him for the enjoyment of the fruits of thy charity.”
The last acknowledgment of the Savior to his virginal spouse is but the particular application of a general principle. Before men could have cast their looks down upon the crib and have raised them to Calvary, before the Sun of Redemption had shone on this lowly vale of our exile, they could already be guided by its light and animated by its heat. Why? Because God the Father, from the summit of the eternal hills, already contemplated the prayers, the sufferings, the virtues, and the merits of His only Son, who was to become incarnate for the salvation of the world.
It is this truth, well understood and carried into practice, that can best render grief productive of virtue. “All my life is now in this,” said the person who drew my attention to the above passage in the revelations of St. Gertrude: “Before my husband died, God knew what I should be willing to do for him.” She made an entire sacrifice of herself; she consecrated her whole being to the Lord, taking for her motto “Pray, suffer, act”; and the Lord consoled her with the gift of the sick poor of the earth, and the suffering souls of purgatory for her family.
Pray, then, and obtain prayers; God, whose mercy is high and vast as the heavens (Ps. 35:6; 57:6 [RSV = Ps. 36:5; 57:5]), knew at the moment when your friend or your relation was about to die what prayers you would say for him today, tomorrow, and after following the advice contained in this page.
Pray, therefore, I repeat, and obtain prayers; your prayers, while consoling and sanctifying you for the present, have already contributed in the past to save those whom you love.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Blot’s In Heaven We’ll Meet Again: The Saints and Scripture on our Heavenly Reunion, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.