November traditionally has been dedicated to praying for our deceased brothers and sisters. This flows from the fact that the month begins with All Saints Day Nov. 1. and All Souls Day Nov. 2. In November, we also focus on the end of the liturgical year as the season of Advent approaches. As we pray for those who have gone before us, it is beneficial to focus on one of the most important and yet overlooked or forgotten Catholic doctrines, namely Purgatory.
The Catholic Bible Dictionary defines Purgatory as the condition of those who have died in the state of grace but with lingering attachment to sin. In Purgatory, souls are purified before being admitted to the glory and happiness of heaven. It is a time when they are purged of venial sins, satisfy the demands of divine justice for temporal punishment due to sin and are made ready for the vision of God. Although the word Purgatory is never used in the Scriptures, there are two main passages that speak to the truth of this important teaching. The first is from the Old Testament in the Second Book of Maccabees. In this passage, Judas Maccabeus sends 12,000 drachmas to Jerusalem to have sacrifices offered on behalf of the dead (2 Macc 12:45). The reason for his doing this is so that the dead may be purged from their sins. So there is a belief in the time before Jesus that prayers of the living can benefit the souls of the dead. In the New Testament in First Corinthians, Paul talks about those who are judged but their works are not worthy of a reward. He says that these people will be saved but only as through fire (1 Cor. 3:15). So these people are saved but there are some imperfections or sins that do not allow their works to be fully accepted by God. These souls need to be purified since nothing unclean can enter the kingdom of heaven (Rev. 21:27).
When we look at Purgatory in light of the doctrines of Heaven and Hell what we see is that if Heaven is a result of God’s love, and Hell is a result of God’s justice, then Purgatory comes from God’s mercy. Who among us would claim to be holy enough to enter Heaven? Who would say that they have no faults, no sins, no failings that would prevent them from entering into the all holy presence of God? If this is the case, and there is no Purgatory then the only option for such people would be Hell. With this understanding a person who has merely committed a few small, venial sins would be lost forever. If there is a place where purification can happen after death, then such people could be saved. Additionally, if there are only Heaven and Hell, then why pray for the dead at all? Those who are in Heaven do not need our prayers since they already enjoy the vision of God. Those in Hell, sadly, can no longer benefit from our prayers. We can see in light of all of this how important the doctrine of Purgatory really is.
What does all of this have to do with vocations? Quite a lot, actually, because it is through the sacramental ministry of the priest that souls are prepared to meet the Lord. The greatest prayer we can offer for the souls of the dead is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Mass is the most perfect of all prayers and we will only see on the other side of eternity just how powerful the Mass is to help souls reach the heavenly kingdom. Along with the Mass is the sacrament of Confession, which restores us to spiritual life when we have wandered away through mortal sin. Both of these sacraments only come through the ministry of the priest. If there are no priests we would be deprived of the graces of these gifts that God has given us. The stakes could not be higher so we pray that the Lord will bless us with more priests so that we may join the multitudes that have gone before us and stand before the Lord marked with the sign of faith.
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