Anyone (Catholic) near my age can probably remember our mothers admonishing us to “offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory” whenever we complained about some pain or discomfort. It’s not something we hear much anymore. In fact, not only has the idea of “offer it up” generally disappeared from the list of routine Catholic expressions, it seems “the poor souls” has to.
Today, we are more inclined to think of our dearly departed as whooping it up at some heavenly fiesta or flitting about with angels, than think of them as poor souls suffering helplessly in Purgatory and in grave need of our prayers and offerings.
In Guam, this produces a strange contrariety. We remember our dead on All Souls Day (Nov. 2) with a seriousness that is found in few other places in the Catholic world. And of course there is never a shortage of “animas” at almost every Mass. But we all but canonize - or even “angelicize” - our dead, in our talk, funeral announcements, eulogies and even sermons (sometimes).
Praying for the dead is very serious business. Unless one dies sinless or a martyr, chances are (it’s always up to God) he or she is not going straight to Heaven, but to Purgatory, and could be there awhile. Here’s why.
Revelations 21:27 tells us “nothing unclean” will enter Heaven. All of us who have the capacity to sin will more than likely die “unclean”, even if we have confessed our sin. A quick example:
A man cheats on his wife. He seeks absolution in the Sacrament of Confession and is absolved. He may even apologize to, and be forgiven by, his wife. Though the sin is forgiven, the damage remains. The strain between the husband and wife, the distrust which now must be endured, the damage done to the children - these are the temporal effects, the vestiges of sin, which no absolution or forgiveness can make go away. In short, the sin may be forgiven, but the stain remains.
Non-Catholic Christians, most of whom do not accept the idea of a post-death state of purgation (Purgatory), do not deny that most will die “unclean”, but believe that Jesus covers that uncleanness: “piles of dung covered with snow”, as Luther put it. But snow or not, piles of dung, as per Revelation 21:27, will not get past St. Peter: “Nothing unclean will enter.” So now what?
The Catholic Church teaches that we are judged at the moment of death. Those who die in a state of unrepentant mortal sin will be cast into Hell. And those who are completely pure (only God can know) will be welcomed into Heaven (CCC 1022). But what of us who are neither guilty of unrepentant mortal sin or completely pure?
Thanks be to God for His mercy. For while there is no post-death second chance to be sorry, there is the chance to burn away the dung and dross of our human condition, to be made clean, so that at some point we may “enter it” and live with God forever. The Church calls this merciful opportunity “Purgatory”:
“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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (CCC 1030-31)
But! - and this is the question which rocked Christendom and led to the many sad divisions which still exist in the Body of Christ: From whence comes this doctrine? Where do we find Purgatory in Scripture?
The Catechism references five scriptures as footnotes for Purgatory: Mt. 12:31 (“...whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come”), 1 Cor 3:15 and 1 Pet 1:7 (passages which speak of a “cleansing fire”), and 2 Maccabees 12:46 and Job 1:5 (where prayers for the dead are mentioned).
Protestant apologists dismiss these references. The pardon in the “age to come” is seen simply as a figure of speech emphasizing the unforgivable nature of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The “cleansing fire” verses are seen as metaphors and not definitive teaching. And the Old Testament passages found in Maccabees and Job are disqualified because Old Testament souls had no opportunity to go to Heaven prior to the coming of Jesus. (Also, Protestants do not accept the books of Maccabees as canonical.)
Catholic theologians argue the deeper meaning of these same verses, but - as evinced by more than 500 years of division - have achieved nothing more than a stalemate.
I wasn’t invited to the Council of Trent, but if I was, I would have offered Revelation 20:13-14, as a more helpful reference. The passage reads: “The sea gave up its dead; then Death and Hades gave up their dead. All the dead were judged according to their deeds. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the pool of fire.”
It’s quite clear. The passage occurs within the context of a description of events which will occur at the end of time. One of the main events is that Hades will “give up its dead”. We know Hades isn’t Hell (understood as the place of eternal damnation) because Hell is noted separately as “the pool of fire”. And we for sure know that Hades isn’t Heaven. So what is it?
Classically, Hades is understood as a holding place for the dead. Such a place was seen as necessary before Christ opened the gates of Heaven, but deemed by Luther and others as unnecessary after. Yet, here we are at the end of time, and not only is Hades still around, its got souls “holed up” there.
What are they doing there? There can be only one explanation. They are not deserving of Hell (or else they’d be there), and not yet worthy of Heaven (or else they’d be there). They are in fact, “spirits in prison”, which comports with Mt. 5:26: “you will not get out of there until you have paid the last penny.”
I’ll see what I can do to send in my entry for the next Council, but for now, study this verse and share it with those who do not accept the doctrine of Purgatory; for many of our loved ones probably yet languish there, and are in need of our prayers and our “offer it up” - as our mothers once admonished us.
P.S. Elmer Rohr, my grandfather, was known as a hard man - a tough old, cider-hardened, World War I vet who literally carved a living for his eleven children out of the rough Ohio ground behind a team of mules in the midst of the Great Depression. As age took its toll and death loomed, he sternly commanded his children to never stop praying for him. He knew that Heaven wasn’t going to be his next stop. We should not presume it will be ours.