We believe, as Catholics, that after death we have one last stage of our journey. If we leave this life a friend of God, we pass through a purification we call “purgatory.”
Now, some people don’t believe in purgatory. But as C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Don’t our souls demand purgatory?” We can’t make ourselves fit for heaven; don’t we want God to make us fit for such a place? Also, sometimes we speak loosely of people going to heaven as if it were automatic. But if were really that easy, why did Jesus die?
The truth is, sin is a serious roadblock. Without God’s help—and those are the key words, “without God’s help”—sin would doom us. We need only look at the newspaper and see sin is serious business. Or think of our experience as Catholics in recent years, and of how the sins of a few have harmed us all, to realize that sin is serious business.
And it’s only when we see just how deep the problem is, that we realize how awesome the remedy is: God became man and died for us; Christ washes away our sins in his blood; and with his gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ gives us the power to change and leave sin behind.
God’s great project: of saving us, reclaiming us, restoring us and making us truly glorious, is a life-time project. Isn’t that Good News? You didn’t miss your chance! Maybe, when we die, the work will be totally done—anybody think that’s you? No need to raise your hands! Then you’ll have already had our purgatory. (No looking around now at anyone!) Or, if—all through life—we shut God out, Purgatory will be no use to us—we will have already rejected heaven and chosen hell.
But if we leave this world a friend of God, whose life still “a work in progress”—sort of like I-75—Purgatory is God’s last work of mercy, purifying us like gold in the furnace, to shine with the purity of Christ’s light.
That’s why we pray for the dead.
What is purgatory like? Does it last years, months, or the twinkling of God’s eye? That’s more than our mind can understand. What we do know is that no prayer goes unheard; and God never refuses to be merciful. The psalm we sang describes our journey: the Lord is our shepherd every step of the way. The path does take us through the valley of death, and many people we love have gone there ahead of us. Those ahead of us pray for us, and we pray for them, that we may all arrive safe at home.
And when we gather here, at the Table of the Lord, somehow, beyond time and beyond the boundaries of life and death, we are joined to those ahead of us. We and they are present together, and it is this Table the Lord spreads for us, his own Body and Blood, that unites us.
Beyond this life, beyond death, beyond sorrow, beyond fear, beyond time and beyond our knowing, we are united in the Shepherd who never leaves us.