This morning I was down to celebrate the conventual Mass, and on this day every November we offer Mass for the deceased relatives and benefactors of the English Benedictine Congregation. It got me thinking on purgatory, and I was propelled a little further along by something I read in the latest (and last?) from the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI: Last Testament in his own words, translated by Dr Jacob Phillips (one of those bright young things at St Mary’s University, Twickenham) and hot off the press and into our mailboxes this past week.
So, as much as a subtle ad for the book as a little exposition on purgatory, the homilette from this morning is offered below.
Early on his Last Testament Benedict XVI is asked about his expectations of eternal life. He answered:
There are various dimensions. Some are more theological. St Augustine says something which is a great thought and a great comfort here. He interprets the passage from the Psalms [105.4] ‘seek his face always’ as saying: this applies ‘for ever’; to all eternity. God is so great that we never finish our searching. He is always new. With God there is perpetual unending encounter, with new discoveries and new joy. Such things are theological matters. At the same time, in an entirely human perspective, I look forward to being reunited with my parents, my siblings, my friends, and I imagine it will be as lovely as it was at our family home.
In purgatory the dead set out on the final stage of the Christian journey to the Promised Land of heaven, to the perpetually and eternally fresh encounter with God that is the consummation of our faith, our hope, and our charity. It is a journey to behold God but never to encompass him fully; to meet God face to face but never to know him completely.
It is our duty to pray for those in purgatory, though not to help them escape torment, as if purgatory were the means of getting in some final, justly-deserved torture before final release into heaven. Purgatory is not really a punitive ordeal, though it might seem to us to be so, to be the experience of punishment. Purgatory is rather, as scripture says, when we are to be finally “loosed from our sins”, when we are unshackled from the burden that weighs us down and holds us back from God; especially those tendrils of sin that have reached deep within our being and left their scar and their rotting shafts. Much as we pray for medicinal healing for our brethren here in this life, we pray for purgatorial healing for those in the next.
Our prayer for the dead is indeed a duty. It is the duty of love towards a limb of Christ’s Body, the Church, that is too readily forgotten, too often even denied. In fulfilling this duty we stand in solidarity with humanity at its most powerless, when it is most naked in its creatureliness, for after death there is no more decision, exercise of will, merit or amendment. The dead in purgatory are utterly dependent on the Church for human initiative towards heaven. They rely on the Church for human support and solidarity. So our prayer for the dead strengthens the supernatural unity of the Church.
No one advances to God alone; the Church is ever present—on earth, in purgatory and in heaven. Our sins against God are always also sins against the Church. So our prayer for the dead voices for them their reconciliation with the Church as they are finally reconciled with God.
In remembering our relatives and benefactors we fulfil this duty for those who have most claim to it.