Since my posting about the apparitions at Fatima a couple of days ago, some have expressed concern about Our Lady’s revelation to the visionaries that one of their friends who had recently died would be in Purgatory until the end of the world. It’s certainly a sobering message, and might be a very terrible one if we don’t have a good understanding of what Purgatory is.
We know that when we die we will stand before the judgment seat of God and everything about us will be revealed as we learn our eternal fate. In his encyclical on hope (Spes Salvi) Pope Benedict XVI wrote that, on one hand “there will be those who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves.” These are the condemned. On the other hand, “there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbors—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.” These are the saints. But for most of us, he speculates, “there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.” These are the holy souls who go to Purgatory in preparation to enter the fullness of joy in Heaven. So, what happens to them there?
I think the film The Wizard of Oz provides a good illustration of what Purgatory is and how it prepares for the Beatific Vision those who are counted among the blessed. In the movie, Dorothy and her friends make their way along the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard in the Emerald City. Along the way they have many adventures and face many dangers as they find themselves under constant threat from the Wicked Witch of the West. Finally, they reach their destination and receive the good news that the Wizard will see them. But they don’t go directly to meet him. They first have to be made presentable, since over the course of their journey they have accumulated the dirt and dust and the wearying effects of travel. Dorothy and the Lion go to the salon, the Scarecrow is re-stuffed with fresh hay, the Tin Man is buffed and polished. Only then can they stand in the glorious presence of the one they traveled so far to meet. Now, I don’t mean to trivialize the experience of Purgatory. If you think about it, it’s not very much fun to be scrubbed with bristle brushes, have the knots combed out of your hair, be re-stuffed or burnished with great big buffing machines. But the heroes of the story endure it joyfully because they know that it is preparing them to meet the great and powerful Wizard that they’ve longed to see. That’s kind of what Purgatory is like. And it’s important to keep in mind that the souls in Purgatory are much more splendid people than we are because they have finished the race, they have been judged, and they know with certainty that they will go to Heaven, while you and I are still working out our salvation and our final destination is yet to be determined.
To build on the Wizard of Oz analogy, the members of the Church on earth are like the workers in the Emerald City who help Dorothy and her friends get ready for their audience with the Wizard. For by our prayers, our sacrifices, and the Masses we have said, we can and do help prepare the holy souls in Purgatory for their entrance into Heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “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” (1032).
If we consider the important role we play in helping the holy souls in Purgatory we must take with grave seriousness Our Lord’s admonition against judging others. Only Christ sits in judgment of souls. Besides the canonized saints, whom we know for certain are in heaven, we do not know the eternal fate of any particular soul. For this reason, we must never presume to say anyone who has died is suffering eternal separation from God in hell. In the same way, however, we ought not presume to say that a loved one who has died is already enjoying perfect happiness with God in heaven. No matter how wonderful we thought them to be, we are not their judge, only God is. And to make such a judgment would be to deprive the holy souls in Purgatory of our prayers, our sacrifices, and the Masses which they so greatly need as they joyfully await entrance into the halls of Heaven.