“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”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, para.1030
I suspect that at the moment of death, our eyes will be truly opened, such that we will perceive clearly our situation in that moment. Our soul will look back upon our life from a very different perspective; we will see the action of divine grace at every moment, and we will see perfectly how well – or otherwise – we have responded to it, and the effects of our choices. The self-delusion that often clouds us in life will be gone forever, for the light of God will be shining directly upon us as we stand before the Lord for our particular judgement.
If we are blessed to be permitted to enter Heaven, our joy will be unending. If we are damned forever, our horror and misery will be equally eternal. But for many souls, there will be a third possibility – that of entry to Heaven only after purgation. The foolish man gives no thought to life beyond death nor to the shortness of the span of life, snatched away in an instant and so unexpectedly. And yet, in comparison to eternity, the longest life is as nothing at all – only a speck of time in an infinity of moments.
The eternal salvation of these souls is, as the Catechism tells us, assured already; but they are not yet ready to enter Heaven and instead need to be purified. This is what we call Purgatory – the state of our souls being cleansed in preparation for Heaven, where nothing can enter in that is not pure and holy. Whilst in Purgatory, these souls suffer – their primary suffering being the aching to be with God in Heaven. And yet despite their sufferings, I think these souls are also filled with joy – that day of entry into Heaven will surely come. And they are joyful for another reason, too – they embrace the purification they are to undergo, for the clarity of their vision now allows them to see their need for purification, and also to know that it is temporary and will end at some point.
In the month of November, we pray especially for these Holy Souls, that their suffering might be shortened; God, in His great mercy, applies the merits of our prayers, sacrifices and indulgences to these Souls and this lessens their purgation. The Holy Souls rely greatly upon us for this, as they have no way to assist themselves. Nothing is more powerful than the Sacrifice of the Mass, and so every November we offer Masses for the Holy Souls. It has always been the tradition of the Church to pray for the dead – we read of this offering of prayer and sacrifice in the Old Testament, in the second book of Maccabees –
“Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out.. thus, he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.” (II Mac.12:42,46)
When a person dies, we have no way whatsoever of knowing what the eternal fate of that soul is; as Catholics, we are hopeful of their eternal salvation, but we cannot be presumptuous that any soul is saved, for only the Lord sees hearts and is able to judge. In the hope of salvation, we pray and sacrifice for that soul, commending it to the mercy of God. We ask the assistance of the Blessed Virgin and of the Saints of Heaven, and we continue to hope. Sometimes, our prayers for a soul will continue every day of our life, always maintaining that sense of hope.
Equally, we must never presume the eternal damnation of any soul – we remind ourselves that on the Cross, the Lord promised salvation to the Good Thief who was crucified alongside Him. God is mercy and love – He alone can judge, He alone can determine the culpability of any soul, He alone decides it’s fate. And so, we pray for these souls, too, begging the mercy of the Most High and of She who the Church calls the Refuge of Sinners.
In our prayers throughout this month of November, let us pray hard for the Holy Souls – amongst whom will surely be many that we have known in life. And remembering, too, that one day – God willing – we will likely join them.