Homily by Fr. Jonathan Redvers Harris on the Holy Souls in Purgatory at Mass in St. Michael’s Church, Bembridge in November 2011
Purgatory doesn’t sit easily with the modern mind. The story is told of the Catholic lady who asked the priest to say mass for the repose of the soul of her dear late husband, and afterwards she complained, “Father, you said he’s in Purgatory!” But, as the priest pointed out, we don’t offer requiems for those in heaven or, for that matter, for those in the other place.
In an age when we tend to prefer “celebrations of people’s lives” rather than real funerals, when we excessively eulogise, and often idolise the departed, the idea of needing to be cleaned up, purified, purged, the very notion of indeed sin and the need for the remission of temporal punishment does not readily appeal.
And not just today’s age – it didn’t appeal greatly at the Protestant Reformation. According to the Church of England’s Articles of Religion, “the Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory… is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of the God” (XXII). It depends partly on which Scriptures are in your canon, but in the Catholic Church in 2 Maccabees (12:46) then prayer for the dead is encouraged, to loose the departed from their sins. In Matthew’s Gospel, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, says our Lord, “either in this age or in the age to come” (12:32), suggesting that some sins may be forgiven in the age to come. And St Paul writes of burning away of man’s works, the things we build, but of the soul being saved, purified by fire (1 Cor 3:11-15). So, not a full-blown articulated doctrine of Purgatory, but one or two pointers.
And also written deeply into our psyche. Even in politics they say “If it’s not hurting it’s not working,” or “No pain then no gain”. “Our souls demand purgatory,” said C.S.Lewis – and the cleaning up may hurt – swarfega, pumice stone, vigorous nail-brushing. The image that Lewis liked was the dentist’s chair: “ I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I’m “coming round” a voice will say, “Rinse your mouth out with this.” This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may be longer than I can now imagine and the taste may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But it will not be disgusting and unhallowed.”
We don’t know how long Purgatory is, we don’t know where it is – but that’s the difficulty of thinking, as we so often do, in terms of time and space. For Purgatory is a condition, a process, to free us from the temporal punishment of our sin, the final purification of God’s people.
When our time comes to fall asleep in the Lord Jesus Christ we won’t be free of in. Even without mortal sin, there will be that disposition, that disordered affection towards creaturely things rather than God, those venial sins for which we are also encouraged to have frequent recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation in this life. And yes we may, as naughty children, be forgiven by our Father for breaking the window with the cricket ball, we may have been absolved of all guilt, all moral culpability cleansed, but the smashed pane is still there. The temporal consequences of our sins remain – the unalterability of the past. We may have offered up some of our piggy-bank savings, accepted a reduction of pocket-money for the next few weeks, to help with the repair of the glass, but ultimately we’ve still had to accept the generosity of the Father dipping into his treasury to make good the damage. That is what we offer this Eucharistic sacrifice for today, that those who have gone before us may be wholly purified, from God’s treasury, and may enter into light and peace.
And we should take heart. They are, after all, the Holy Souls in Purgatory – they detest sin, just as we say we do every time we offer our Act of Contrition in confession. They hate sin, they know they’ve done with sin, and for these holy souls we offer this mass today that they may be granted rest eternal and that light perpetual may shine upon them.