While teaching a theology class to men in formation for the diaconate, I asked, “When was the last time you heard a homily on Hell?” None of the sixteen could recall. “And Heaven?” Only two. The exchange reminded me of an observation made by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in his book Loving the Church (Ignatius Press, 1998):
Something very strange has taken place in recent years: Christians have lost touch with heaven. Of the desire for heaven, our “heavenly home,” we hear hardly a word. It is as if Christians have lost the orientation that for centuries defined the direction of our journey. We have forgotten that we are pilgrims and that the goal of our pilgrimage is heaven. Connected with this is another loss: we largely lack the awareness that we are on a dangerous pilgrim path and it is possible for us to miss our goal. To put it bluntly, we do not long for heaven; we take it for granted that we will get there. This diagnosis may be exaggerated, but I am afraid it is essentially true.
What Cardinal Schönborn is talking about is an erosion of eschatological awareness. Eschatology is that branch of theology concerning the “Four Last Things”: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
For observant Catholics, the month of November is a refresher course in the four last things. On November 1st, All Saints’ Day, we commemorate all the saints without exception, canonized or not, those known to us and those who have no commemoration in the Church’s liturgy—God’s friends and ours, too. Their successful completion of the pilgrimage of faith gives us confidence: they did it, so can we. Just as importantly, we have the gift of their intercession. They now stand before the throne of God and the Lamb, interceding on our behalf. And because they are God’s friends, we know their prayers are efficacious.
On November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, we pray for the souls in Purgatory: those who have left this world in the state of grace, yet have not reached perfect sanctification and therefore are not ready to stand forever in the sight of God.
At the end of November or beginning of December comes the liturgical season of Advent, the principal theme of which is the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment that will accompany it.
These stark themes—death, judgment, purification, eternal reward or eternal punishment—should not make us morose or miserable. Scripture teaches us to fear God. Yes, we fear the just punishments—the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell—but the highest form of fear is filial, a reverential fear of displeasing God because He is our loving Father. There have been regrettable caricatures of God as a surly, implacable judge eagerly awaiting the next soul to condemn. But this is surely not the predominant fault of our age, which revolts at even the possibility of divine judgment (except maybe for Hitler and a few others).
A friend recently informed me of the sudden death of our mutual acquaintance, “Rick.” She asked me to pray for Rick’s widow, “Susan,” and their children. “Of course,” I replied, “and for Rick. May God be his reward.” She thanked me and added, “I’ll let the family know know you’re praying for them.” “Please do,” said I, “and for Rick. Tell them I’ll offer a Mass for the repose of his soul.” The next day, my friend sent me a text message: “Susan says she’s very grateful that you will say a Mass for her and the kids.”
I sighed in vexation. “For Rick,” I said audibly. “The Mass is for Rick.” I would probably have felt more indulgent of her ignorance were my friend not Catholic. But she is Catholic—and a practicing one, to boot. Nevertheless, it seems not to have entered her mind that Christian charity obliges us to pray, not only for Rick’s family (that God console them), but for Rick (that God have mercy on his soul). What ever happened to the doctrine of Purgatory and the need to pray for the souls therein?
The doctrine remains, of course, even if awareness of it seems to have vanished, and by no means among lay Catholics only. I once saw a parish bulletin in which the pastor, betraying an appalling misconception, explained the difference between All Saints’ and All Souls’ days by saying that the former commemorates all the canonized saints in Heaven, whereas the latter commemorates all the uncanonized saints in Heaven. I can also recall the frustration I experienced when, to no avail, I tried to explain to another priest why the hymn “For All the Saints,” while perfectly appropriate for All Saints’ Day, is not suitable for funerals or the commemoration of All Souls.
In these people’s minds, the meaning of All Saints’ Day seems to have been thoughtlessly conflated with the meaning of All Souls’ Day. As is often the case when trying to make sense of what Father Louis Bouyer called the “decomposition of Catholicism,” we can point to the catechetical meltdown following the Second Vatican Council. Not altogether unrelated to that problem is the fact that some Catholics find Purgatory an ecumenical embarrassment: Protestants have historically rejected the doctrine and its attendant devotional practices as unbiblical (at best) and (at worst) a negation of the all-sufficient merits of Christ’s atoning Sacrifice.
Poor catechesis and misguided ecumenism post-Vatican II no doubt account in some degree for the Catholic amnesia about Purgatory, but we must also look to changes in liturgical practice. Lex orandi lex credendi, after all: how we worship shapes how we believe. The council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) called for funeral rites to “express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death” (n. 81). Since then, the homilies and the general ethos that pervades the revised funeral rites have often ignored Purgatory and instead canonized the deceased among the saints in Heaven. Vatican II did not intend this distortion, of course, but certain liturgical reforms after the council have facilitated it. The Dies Irae, the centuries-old sequence before the Gospel of the Requiem Mass, with its solemn warning of the “day of wrath” when sins will be exposed and accounted, was expunged; it survives in the modern Roman Rite as an optional hymn for the Liturgy of the Hours on All Souls’ Day. Moreover, the use of white vestments instead of the traditional black amounts to an implicit canonization, given that white, symbolizing purity and joy, is the liturgical color for feasts of Our Lord, Our Lady, the angels, and non-martyr saints (confessors).1 The use of white vestments at funerals and other Masses for the Dead in the postconciliar Roman Rite has been permitted in the United States and some other countries since 1970. Violet and black are likewise permissible. Add to the mix the all-too-frequent homilies that declare the deceased to be enjoying all the glories of Heaven, and it is easy to understand why many Catholics have forgotten about Purgatory or are ignorant of it.
At best, such occasions are examples of understandable, albeit wrongheaded, “pastoral” efforts to comfort grieving loved ones. One can and should console without canonizing, explicitly or implicitly. At worst, they are sentimental exercises that trivialize the most central beliefs of Catholicism. Christian hope clings firmly to salvation—eternal communion with the Holy Trinity and, on that basis, with all the blessed—as a distinct possibility, nay, a “blessed assurance” (in Evangelical parlance), for those who die in God’s grace and friendship. At the same time, it admits that salvation is neither owed us, nor attainable by human effort. One cannot expect God’s mercy without being repentant; nor can one be received into heavenly glory without grace and the holy life that grace inspires and enables.
A proper understanding of Purgatory reveals it to be a great mercy. Salvation essentially involves transformation in Christ, beginning at baptism. At the same time, nothing unholy or impure can enter Heaven (Rev. 21:27). What, then, becomes of those who die in the state of grace but have not been entirely sanctified or fully perfected? Such people do not seem to be ready for a Heaven of perfect love and communion with God, but neither should they be condemned to Hell.
It is this basic theological problem that underpins the doctrine of Purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 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.
This doctrine has its roots in Sacred Scripture,2 Several texts, especially 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, Matthew 12:32, and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, seem to envisage a state of man’s soul at death in which he is still under the power of sin, yet not deserving of rejection by God, and consequently they seem to allow for a possible purification from sin and its effects beyond this life. These texts, however, were not the decisive factor in the formation of the doctrine of Purgatory. Here practice largely antedated doctrinal reflection: from earliest times, the Church prayed for those who died in Christ. the Church Fathers, and in the popular conviction (among Jews and Christians alike) that the prayers and alms of the faithful can benefit their beloved dead.3 See Gary A. Anderson’s superb essay, “Is Purgatory Biblical?” in the November 2011 edition of the journal First Things. Click HERE.
Just how is this “purification” accomplished? The process surely involves suffering, as it does here on earth, with the difference that the suffering of the souls in Purgatory is purely spiritual (that is, in the intellect and the will). We know from experience that suffering can purify, that it can detach us from our own likes and dislikes; it can “mortify” (deaden, devitalize) the disordered tendencies which lead us to attach ourselves to false instead of true, finite instead of ultimate goods. The source of this suffering in Purgatory is primarily the soul’s longing for God and its clear understanding that the only reason why it is not with God in Heaven is its own imperfection. The writings of the mystics St. Catherine of Genoa, St. John of the Cross, and Mother Mary of St. Austin suggest that the purification of Purgatory may be analogous to that accomplished by God in the soul of the mystic. God gives the mystic a special understanding of His goodness, holiness, justice, mercy, etc. In the light of this knowledge, the soul sees how distant it is from God as a result of its sins. It is deeply afflicted with sorrow and desires to be like God. Such sorrow and desire gradually reorder and reorient all the spiritual affections of the soul.
To dismiss the doctrine of Purgatory is to undercut a number of other truths: the nature of sin and the effect it causes in man and in his relation to God; the absolute holiness of God and man’s need of complete interior purification and sanctity if he is to enter into that intimate union with God which is his fundamental vocation and beatitude; the interrelationship in the work of salvation of all the members of Christ, whether still on earth or already departed.
The last thing I want to say about Purgatory is that Purgatory is not one of the Last Things. It is not anyone’s final stop, and some bypass it altogether. Baptized children who die before attaining the use of reason and, with it, the capacity to sin, go directly to Heaven. So, too, according to longstanding belief, those who suffer martyrdom for the Faith. And then there are the faithful, though very few probably, who even in this life have completed the process not only of making satisfaction for sin (i.e., of penance), but also, and inseparably, of interior transformation in Christ until they are, in total selflessness and in every fiber of their being, one with the will of God.
In our desire to comfort those who mourn, let’s not pretend that all are saved. To do so is to make a mockery of our moral choices and, more seriously, of the preaching of Christ, who said a good deal more about eternal punishment than one might think at first sight. Even if we have good reason to believe that someone is among the faithful departed and thus bound for glory, we should not assume that his or her suffering in Purgatory will have ended well in time for the funeral eulogy. Instead, let us put grief to constructive use. Through our prayers for the dead, the offering of Masses for their release from Purgatory, and the gaining of indulgences to be applied to them, we petition and secure from God a “quicker”4 The question of God’s relationship to time is vexing and cannot be discussed here. and less painful purification for them and a remission of the debt of punishment they must pay.
Truth be told, only two of the “Four Last Things” are truly last things. The final judgment will end intermediate states and leave only Heaven and Hell. Or, perhaps better put, it will leave only one thing: the transformed universe, “the new heaven and the new earth” (Rev. 21:1), experienced as heaven by the saints and as hell by the damned.
Only in Heaven will we fully recognize how much we owe our salvation to the Church, the communion of saints. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux said, “In heaven there will be no glances of indifference, because all the elect will realize that they owe one another the graces that have won their crown.”5 Last Conversations, 15 July 1897 That is a truth worth unforgetting as we enter the month of all saints and all souls.
Originally published on October 31, 2015.
Born and raised in Binghamton, New York, Fr. Thomas Kocik was a computer programmer for IBM Corp. before entering the seminary. In 1997 he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Fall River by Bishop (now Cardinal) Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap. He is the author of The Reform of the Reform? A Liturgical Debate (2003), Loving and Living the Mass (2nd ed. 2011), The Fullness of Truth: Catholicism and the World’s Major Religions (2013), and Singing His Song: A Short Introduction to the Liturgical Movement (2nd ed. 2019), as well as many published articles and book reviews. From 2009 to 2012 he was editor of Antiphon, the journal of the Society for Catholic Liturgy. A complete bibliography is available HERE.
|↑1||The use of white vestments at funerals and other Masses for the Dead in the postconciliar Roman Rite has been permitted in the United States and some other countries since 1970. Violet and black are likewise permissible.|
|↑2||Several texts, especially 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, Matthew 12:32, and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, seem to envisage a state of man’s soul at death in which he is still under the power of sin, yet not deserving of rejection by God, and consequently they seem to allow for a possible purification from sin and its effects beyond this life. These texts, however, were not the decisive factor in the formation of the doctrine of Purgatory. Here practice largely antedated doctrinal reflection: from earliest times, the Church prayed for those who died in Christ.|
|↑3||See Gary A. Anderson’s superb essay, “Is Purgatory Biblical?” in the November 2011 edition of the journal First Things. Click HERE.|
|↑4||The question of God’s relationship to time is vexing and cannot be discussed here.|
|↑5||Last Conversations, 15 July 1897|
Thank you for this, Father. In my own research on this very important topic, I came across a logical division of the suffering experienced by the damned which appears to have been rather popular among the Schoolmen. (Anyone interested can find the fruits of that research here: On the Virtuous Pagan, Limbo and the Theology of Damnation.) My question:
The International Theological Commission recently put great emphasis on the opinion which holds it to be possible for unbaptized infants to enter heaven and enjoy the beatific vision – making Limbo more or less obsolete. As a priest, what has been your experience with the traditional teaching on Limbo? Was the ITC’s position paper well-received among the clergy? Is Limbo effectively ignored in pastoral work these days? Or does it still find a role in helping families overcome the tragedy of misscarriage? Any information you could provide on this would be greatly appreciated.
As far as I can tell, Limbo is a non-issue these days among clergy and faithful alike. Limbo is widely dismissed as passé because of its supposed incompatibility with God’s universal salvific will. There’s the ITC opinion you mentioned, but there’s also Pope St John Paul II’s assertion in Evangelium Vitae (1995) that infants who die without baptism are “now living in the Lord.” Both of these are opinions, not binding doctrine. On the one hand, the existence of Limbo has never been affirmed or rejected by the Magisterium. On the other hand, I think the weight of Tradition does not allow us to claim with certitude that those souls now enjoy the Beatific Vision, even if we acknowledge God’s freedom to bestow sanctifying grace apart from the sacraments. At best, I think we can hope and pray that the sovereign God will grant these little ones the same grace of which they were deprived by not having been baptized, thereby cleansing them of Original Sin and enabling them to enter Heaven. After all, the vision of God is not a birthright, but a rebirthright.
Excellent question and one that I have wondered about now for some time! Thanks for asking! Hopefully Fr. will answer. Also this was an excellent article by Fr. I am so tired of hearing homily after homily at Funeral Masses by Priests who only talk about the glory of Heaven that the deceased is now enjoying. I wish Mother Angelica were still up and ‘teaching’. I’ll never forget the one time she was talking about ALL of us called to be saints, and she said; ‘Don’t shoot for purgatory, what if you MISS!’
Don’t you find it odd when priests “canonize” the deceased, yet think nothing about taking a Mass stipend for the funeral? Why bother to offer Mass if the deceased is already with God in heaven?
Sometimes I actually wonder if the family (poor things) actually think the Mass is indeed for ‘them’….the ‘grieving’. Catholics are so very very confused anymore.
As far as I can tell, Limbo is a non-issue these days among clergy and faithful alike. Limbo is widely dismissed as passé because of its supposed incompatibility with God’s universal salvific will. There’s the ITC opinion you mentioned, but there’s also Pope St John Paul II’s assertion in “Evangelium Vitae” (1995) that infants who die without baptism are “now living in the Lord.” Both of these are opinions, not binding doctrine. On the one hand, the existence of Limbo has never been affirmed or rejected by the Church’s Magisterium. On the other hand, I think the weight of Tradition does NOT permit us to claim with certitude that those souls now enjoy the Beatific Vision, even if we acknowledge God’s freedom to bestow sanctifying grace apart from the sacraments. At best, I think we can hope and pray that God will grant these little ones the same grace of which they were deprived by not having received baptism, thereby cleansing them of Original Sin and enabling them to enter Heaven. After all, the vision of God is not a birthright, but a REbirthright.
Thank you for your thoughts, Father. I think that when we downplay Purgatory we make it easier to contracept and abort. Catholic women who kill their babies may be consoled to think that God would never let their babies go to Limbo because He is ‘all loving.’
I think it is very important to keep with the Tradition: that God gives the unbaptized baby every natural happiness, but not the Beatific Vision. God is Justice too. If this truth were preached in season and out, mothers would do everything in their power to have their babies, to baptize them to give them a chance at Heaven.
Thank you, Father. And thank you, Barbara, as you brought up a topic which appears very important to me in regards to Limbo, i.e. abortion. I’ve actually had people tell me that it is more merciful to abort a child than to let it be born into poverty or a bad social environment because “all aborted babies go straight to heaven” – as though original sin counts for nothing these days. And Limbo? Mentioning it can even cause some traditional Catholics to scratch their heads: “Do we still believe that?” I understand that pastors want very much to comfort grieving parents – those among us who are truly open to life who have not suffered a miscarriage can count their blessings – but it seems they often do so without understanding the risk it poses to core teachings of the faith, not to mention that it plays into the hands of the culture of death. Thanks again for your time and your clear teaching, Father.
Dear Father Kocik, Thank you for this wonderful affirmation on “the four last things”. It is sad that most priests do not teach this to their flock. I remember an old lady in my parish who used to collect pennies for Masses for the souls in purgatory. A simple little apostolate, but who can say what she accomplished.
God bless you, Father, for teaching the truth…. and trying to pass it on.
Thank you! Fortunately, we here about the 4 Last Things at Mass quite often at Mass.. even hell and purgatory! It is refreshing and edifying, to say the least.
Thank you for such clear teaching
Excellent Father. Here’s a little note from a concerned Catholic.
“I must say your article has the sound of “heresy” as what practicing Catholic has ever heard the idea that some folks actually go to
hell. How old fashioned you are! And
this purgatory business? Ridiculous. You should be ashamed of yourself for
exposing little children to your warped personal opinions. You should be ashamed for scaring people. We have a nice priest we have here who only
talks about love and mercy just like Pope Francis. Can’t you be like him. You should know better Father, everyone goes
I take it the writer is being sarcastic.
Fr. Kocik. Indeed.
I want to pray for my dead relatives, but they were all material heretics separated from the Church by an accident of time and place.
Is this kosher to do if I phrase it correctly?
Thank you Father. The death of my young 23 year old son last March is the main catalyst of my conversion and entrance into the Church this past Easter.
I was baptized a Catholic as an infant, to non practicing parents. I did make my First Communion, but the ONLY thing I remembered from 1 year of catechism was the Our Father and Hail Mary. My Hail Mary’s, I believe, are key to God’s Graces in my conversion after my son’s death.
I am divorced (1994) from another non practicing Catholic and remarried (1999) to an ex-missionary Protestant. Though I knew my divorce was a “sin” of sorts….I did not understand the extent of it, especially in regards to my “remarriage”.
A few years before my son’s death I “happened” upon Ann Barnhardt’s website and found her writings for the Truth of the Catholic faith fascinating. They made a lot more sense to me than my husband’s faith….but he of course would have none of it. So I did nothing.
Then in March 2014 when my son passed…..I didn’t even know how or what to pray, but instinctively started praying the “Rosary”, but I didn’t know how. So I would just pray a mess of Hail Mary’s with the occasional Our Father. I did this over and over and over again. I asked our small group friends (Protestant) to pray for Justin….but the only one who did (in my presence) was one of the ex-Catholics (6 of our 10 are ex-Catholics). The others, including my husband (a life long Protestant) could or would not. It was heart-breaking to me.
It was shortly after my son’s death that I found out about the Real Presence, purgatory and the problem with my “re-marriage”. My insistence of annulments for both mine and my husband’s first marriages has not set well with my husband, to say the least. It has almost led to divorce…which I am fine with if it is God’s will. I just don’t believe it is though. You see, Jerry told me all about Jesus and started me in a right direction. I cannot believe God put him in my life just to have him leave and then he would forever hate His Church.
After a particularly horrible day with my husband last winter I lay prostate in front of our Nativity and begged Jesus to give me something. I have to have something! A dream….anything, that my Justin was ok. That night I got a dream. My Justin was in a dark place (not really a room), just a dark place. I knew in my dream he had died and that I shouldn’t be seeing him. but when I finally got close enough to see his face, it was all swollen and black and blue. He looked so sad. I went to him and hugged him and asked him what was wrong. What happened? He just looked at me and said, “mom, I have Hebron. I’ve had it since puberty”. There was a little more to the dream, but it’s not relevant to this discussion. Then I woke up. I wanted to remember what he told me….especially the Hebron part, because I thought maybe it was a disease the coroners missed. Of course to my delight….Hebron is a place.
Unfortunately none of my 3 sons have been baptized (so I thought). I didn’t find out until months after my dream that baptism is the normative way to heaven. So I was again saddened and worried for my son…but I didn’t say anything to anyone (about the need for baptism for heaven). This past summer my mom told me that she “baptized” all 5 of her grandsons as infants. I was ecstatic! Only one glitch though. She only traced the sign of the Cross on their foreheads with holy water (no pouring), but in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
i told my priest all this of course and he says I can never give up hope….so I don’t. And what was really comforting to me is that he reminded me that God is out side of time…and to never stop praying for him.
Sorry this was so long and @JohnnyCuredents…this seemed a better fit for my testimony. I hope you see this.
Thanks be to God for this website and those like it! Someone told me that after everything I was going through with my son’s death, my marriage, my conversion struggles that I was a target for God’s Mercy…..I believe she was right. He has been so very Merciful to me!
Thank you for this testimony. I will remember your son Justin at the altar this evening as I celebrate the All Souls’ Day Mass. I encourage you to continue learning about our beautiful Catholic Faith. 1P5 is a great resource, of course, but there are others: Catholic Answers (www.catholic.com), Ignatius Press (www.ignatius.com), St Peter’s List (www.stpeterslist.com), and Fish Eaters (www.fisheaters.com), to name just a few. You might also want to check out my friend Fr. Jay Finelli’s podcasts at http://www.iPadre.net.
Thanks again Father! And thank you for your prayers for my son and the links.
Thank you again Father! I often observe how few times people share good websites. We should help others find good sources of information more often.
Your comment has something in it that has completely captured my attention.
First let me say I will pray for Justin as well. I am often comforted when thinking about the reality that God works outside of time as we know it. My Dad passed away 40 years ago without benefit of the Sacraments including Confession. I am sad to say a lack of awareness of purgatory has led to not many prayers going up for my beloved Dad. I will change that now and God knew all along this would happen, so I can have hope my dad is fine.
I lost my beloved sister last September. We had lost our mom a few years before, and this combined with other life circumstances, when my sister passed, I too, did the unusual (for me) and had a “moment” with God where I just wailed. It was a moment of true desperation, I could not go on and your words were mine “He’s got to give me SOMETHING”, I cried. It was a profoundly low moment.
When we lost my Mom, who was my best friend, I welcomed a dream, but never had one.
But I did have a dream of my sister, right after my plea. I must say the last period of years have been spiritually dry with little consolation. Early on you get them, not so much afterward. But He did give me this incredibly real dream of my sister, and it has given me much peace since then. I thank Him and praise Him for it!
Fr. Andrew Apostoli just had an expert in Purgatory on his “Sunday Evening Prime” program for All Souls Day. Her name is Susan Tassone and she has written a number of books. They even discussed dreaming of loved ones after they pass. I now see it as a great mercy God can give. Fr. Apostoli and Ms. Tassone mentioned that people can appear in a dream to a loved one in that they are asking for prayers to be released from Purgatory.
Personally, just my opinion, but it does not seem at all likely your son would have come to you in a dream if he was not at least in Purgatory, so be hopeful, offer prayer, Holy Masses, consider a Gregorian Mass Society.
God bless you and may He comfort you in your loss.
All the more reason to pray for them.
The permission for white vestments to be worn at a Requiem Mass says it all. Whoever asked for the permission, and whoever gave it, should be ashamed.
If I were pope, I *might* consider allowing the use of white in countries where white symbolizes mourning (the Far East, I think). Maybe.
It would appear some have forgotten the 4 last things. For those who read Italian.
And then, those who wish to expose the wolves get this:
My college-age godson, over dinner, stated that some inane earthly thing was the “purpose of life”, to which I replied, the purpose of life is to “get to heaven.” Silence. Thankfully his mom seconded me! I fear for my nephews, who know so little of their wonderful Faith. And btw, are godparents doing their jobs today?
So well written Father, thank you. This teaching is a tremendous loss in our church and culture. May it make a triumphant return.
“These stark themes—death, judgment, purification, eternal reward or eternal punishment—should not make us morose or miserable.”
How can they not? The moment I feel confident of my own salvation, my mind turns to all my indifferent, unrepentant, atheist and/or apostate friends and family. If you’re not miserable about your own state of grace, how can you ignore your friends and family being tortured for eternity? If you don’t care, do you really love them? If you do care, how can you not be miserable?
I say stop being so self-centered and be miserable. If you don’t need to mourn for yourself then mourn for others. Blessed are the sorrowful.