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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

All Souls Day, Purgatory and Praying for the Dead.

   If you are from my generation of Catholics the phrase "offer it up" became part of your vocabulary at an early age.  We were invited to offer things up for the sake of the souls in purgatory. We offered up setbacks and defeats, the illnesses we suffered, the hurts we experienced and of course we offered up our prayers for our loved ones who had died and for the "poor souls" who had no one to pray for them.

   I'm sure that if I spoke of "offering it up" to most younger Catholics I would get a puzzled look.  Furthermore many Catholics find it hard to believe in purgatory.  I can't say that I blame them because of the way that purgatory has been explained over the years.  It seemed to be presented as a mini-hell where people eventually left and got to heaven.  They could be helped by the prayers and offerings of the living which served as a sort of spiritual bail money or get out of jail early card.

   Looking back over the development of this doctrine I believe that we have taken some wrong turns.  Praying for the dead goes back to the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Maccabees 12:42-46) and was also practiced in some other ancient religions.  This tells us that for quite some time there has been a belief that the dead need our prayers as they go before God.  In the early Church some theologians spoke of the need for purification before entering heaven.  In other word though people die in God's good graces most of us are not perfect.  We still have unfinished spiritual business and God in a merciful way cleanses of purifies us. No one spoke of "purgatory" as a place until around the end of the first millennium. While this may be painful it is not punishment in the sense of something intended to hurt one as a result of misdeeds so much as a merciful and therapeutic purification process which may take place rather quickly, I imagine that like many experiences we have here on earth something that is difficult can seem to last forever even if it is brief.  Likewise I would think that the yearning of the deceased to be completely united with God with all barriers removed is in itself painful.

    The Church also speaks of the fact that this purification can be done in this life.  Many think that this means that sicknesses such as cancer are punishments for our sins.  I think not.  I do think that illness, suffering and the aging process lead us more and more to "let go", not only of our sins, but of the trivialities of life that we once thought were so important. 

   As for praying for that dead I think that our loved ones for whom we pray feel the support and strength of our prayers just as we do in this life when people pray for us.  Our prayers for them also help us in the healing of our grief and may also serve to heal our relationships with them if there have been hurts and regrets. This is much different than seeing God as a spiritual banker who lightens the sentence of those who get prayers.

   I live in a friary community that is made up largely of retired friars. I had the privilege of presiding at the community Liturgy on Sunday, All Souls Day.  I suggested to my brothers that our kind of fraternity could be considered a "purgatory".  After eliciting the appropriate laughter I explained that i meant that in a positive sense, seeing our community as a place where we help each other out on the final legs of our journey home to God so that there might be less unfinished business when we get there.  Many of the friars welcomed that thought.

   Our God is a merciful God who desires not to  lose any one of His beloved. May we all assist one another on the journey to our loving God.

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