Saints and Souls: Heaven and Purgatory

by Brian Grab


Earlier this month, we celebrated All Saints’ Day and commemorated All Souls’ Day. These holidays are set aside for prayerful reflection on a specific aspect of Christian life: life after death.  What has happened to our departed loved ones and the great heroes of the faith? These questions and their answers are woven into the Mass.    

When the priest celebrates Mass, he says the Eucharistic prayer “in communion with those whose memory we venerate.” He does so with the Saints, who are with God in Heaven and with us in prayer. During Mass, the priest urges God to “remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and all who have died in your mercy: welcome them into the light of your face.” We pray for and with the dead because the unity of the Church transcends death.


During the celebration of the Eucharist, the Church on Earth prays for the Church in purgatory with the Church in Heaven. The traditional terms for these groups are: the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant.


“Militant” is a fitting term for the Church on Earth because life in this fallen world entails a constant struggle against temptation, sin, and even demonic influences. As Christians, we strive to live holy lives in a world that is often unfriendly to that goal. Fortunately, God gives us whatever grace we need: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Those who seek the Lord will eventually find Him.


But what about people who seek the Lord in this life, but who fall short of the holiness desired by God? This is where the doctrine of purgatory comes in.  Purgatory is often misunderstood, but if we turn to the Catechism, the idea behind it is quite intuitive:  “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” (1030). God offers purgatory as a mercy for those who are “imperfectly purified.”  While God desires that those who join Him in Heaven be completely holy; he does not cast aside any of those who long to see His face. Those who lack in holiness become holy in purgatory “like gold tested in fire” (1 Peter 1:7). Much like turning toward the moral life on Earth, this process can be difficult. That is why the Church on Earth and in Heaven prays for the dead in purgatory, just as we would pray for someone recovering from a disease, or better yet, how we would pray for a man seeking a holy life in the seminary. On All Souls’ Day there is a special focus on praying for our brothers and sisters in purgatory.


On All Saints’ Day we remember the effectiveness of this prayer. We know God can make people holy because we know that there have been holy men and women throughout history, by the grace of God. We come to know the supreme graciousness of God by the testimony of the saints. Men and women have gone before us and lived holy lives with the help of God’s grace, and they continue to pray for us as members of the Church Triumphant. On All Saints’ Day, and every day, we implore the saints to pray with us and for us, that we- like them- may live lives of heroic holiness, and that we- like them- will find our eternal home in God. 


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