Feast of All Souls: The Mystery of God's Mercy and Justice

Nov 3, 2020

Pamela Walpole

Following All Saints Day on November 1st is All Souls Day, a day specifically set aside by the Catholic Church to honor and pray for the faithful departed. In fact, the entire month of November is dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. To understand more fully our commitment to prayer for the Holy Souls, one needs to examine more closely the Doctrine (and Dogma) of Purgatory.

How does one reconcile the fact that one is not saintly enough for heaven, but not sinful enough for hell? Enter the doctrine of Purgatory. Purgatory actually is a gift of God's mercy whereby individuals who love and strive to please God and who are destined for heaven realize that they have a proclivity to sin and are burdened by these disordered desires and sinful habits. We know that God created us for perfection, but because of our fallen nature and brokenness, we cannot achieve it during earthly life. We desperately need the grace of God to even recognize our sin.

Purgatory is not a final destination, but a temporary state wherein we are perfected, body and soul, before entering the gates of paradise. If we find ourselves in Purgatory, we are already slated for entry into heaven. The power of God’s love is both merciful and just, therefore, one who has confessed and repented of their sinful attachments and acts needs to endure temporal punishment for these offences committed against God. It seems a harsh sentence, until you realize the purifying love of our Creator and how much He truly desires to draw us to Himself wherever He dwells.

What is Purgatory? The purifying fire of purgatory is unlike the intolerable fire of those suffering souls condemned to the eternal misery of Hell. Purgatory is merciful preparation for heaven. Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), a mystic, says that “its spiritual pains vastly exceed any earthly pains, physical or spiritual, because we see there the full horror of our sins.” She also says that its joys even more vastly exceed earthly joys because we see there, and actually become there, the perfect creatures God designed us to be.

St. Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 writes that those constructing a less sincere foundation on Jesus Christ will be saved, but only as through fire. He speaks of building on this foundation with precious stones or less durable material - wood, hay or straw - each representing man’s earthly toil. Fire will test the sort of work each man has done and if it survives, he will receive a reward on the Day (of Judgement); otherwise, he will suffer loss, though “he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” Gold and silver would be purified when put into a furnace; wood, hay and straw would burn away. The fire that St. Paul is referring to cannot be hell, because he clearly states that they will be saved. Because he mentions the suffering of loss, he cannot be referring to heaven.

Our sanctification is analogous to what a silversmith does to remove dross, or impurities, from a piece of silver. He applies extremely intense heat which causes impurities to rise to the surface of the metal. He will continue to remove the dross and reapply heat until the metal has been purified. How will he know when the process is complete? When the silversmith looks at the piece of silver and sees his reflection; this is not unlike what God will see when we are finally ready to enter his heavenly kingdom.

Aside from Scripture, we can also cite the early Church Fathers and what they had to say in their letters or preaching about praying for the dead and the belief in a place of purification before entering heaven. St. Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) spoke about Purgatory in the following passage: “in such state as a man departeth out of this life, in the same he is presented in judgement before God. But yet we must believe there is a Purgatory fire for certain small sins… all which sins be punished after death, if men procured not pardon and remission for them in their lifetime.

In formulating Catholic doctrine regarding Purgatory, the Magisterium waited until the thirteenth century before edifying and promulgating this important and consistently held belief. It was at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 A.D. that the Church teaching regarding Purgatory was defined for the first time. The Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence (1431-49 A.D.) reaffirmed the Church’s doctrinal belief in Purgatory at Session 6, held July 6, 1439. Both of these ecumenical councils were convened before the Protestant Reformation. Along with scriptural passages and the early church fathers, it seems as though the idea of Purgatory was already fairly ingrained in the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

The Council of Trent reaffirmed the Orthodoxy of the Church and most of the doctrines under dispute during the Reformation, including the existence of Purgatory and indulgences. Abuses associated with the selling of indulgences were condemned and new restrictions were enacted. The Council of Trent was not only a reform council, but part of the Counter-Reformation. It was during the 25th session of the General Council of Trent, held December 3-4, 1563, that Pope Pius IV issued the decree concerning Purgatory, validating its dogmatic status for the faithful.

From the early Church Fathers it is evident that the belief and teaching concerning purification after death was deeply rooted in apostolic Tradition. The early Christians (Church Militant) felt a deep solidarity with the deceased: both the saints in the Church Triumphant and the souls in the Church Suffering in Purgatory. This is known as the Communion of Saints.

Purification of our sins has been dramatized by visionaries as both painful and joyful. In Hebrews 12:29, God is portrayed as a consuming fire. In Exodus 3:2 the Lord appears to Moses as a “flame of fire” out of the midst of a bush that is not itself consumed. Experiences and writings of the Saints bear witness to being drawn up in the fire of God’s Holy presence, which is none other than His divine life and love. There is no obligation to believe in private revelation and its purpose is not to convince us of the reality of Purgatory; instead, it is intended to increase our faith.

St. Catherine of Genoa, mentioned earlier, has this to say in her “Treatise on Purgatory”:

“When gold has been completely freed from the dross, no fire, however great, has further action on it, for nothing but its imperfections can be consumed. So it is with the divine fire in the soul. God retains her in these flames until every stain is burned away, and she is brought to the highest perfection of what she is capable, each soul in her own degree. And when this is accomplished, she rests wholly in God. Nothing of herself remains, and God is her entire being.”

This consuming fire of God’s Love gives us a very different way of envisioning Purgatory. This purifying flame is His desire for us to return to that state of perfection for which we were created. His love is so powerful that it wants to draw us into that sacred oneness, eternal union with Him, which is humankind’s ultimate vocation and destiny.

A retired community pharmacist of 30 years, Pamela Walpole believes that embracing a living spirituality enhances one's overall health; strengthening the mind-body-spirit connection and contributing to one's sanctifying wholeness. Graduating in 2020 from St. Bernard's with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies, Pamela desires to continue her pastoral ministry in the area of chaplaincy. She is a VNS hospice volunteer and an active member of Church of the Assumption in Fairport, N.Y.