At this time of year, in the month before December, a lot of peoples’ thoughts are turning towards Christmas. That is the particular season when the loss of loved ones will be most keenly felt in many families and circles of friends.
Most of us experience loss at some time in our lives; as a child the death of a pet; parents seeing their children leaving home or members of the family moving to locations around the globe. However nothing truly prepares us for the death of a loved one. And yet we all know that we are going to die, for that is the great certainty of life, whether we are rich or poor, male or female, Protestant or Catholic, Christian or Muslim. Perhaps if we dwell on the fact too much we might go mad! However the whole purpose of the Christian life is to prepare us for the life which is to come. Christians believe they are on a journey home to God and that the life we have on earth is only a preparation for the next life.
Praying for the Dead
The idea of a place between death and heaven, as well as the practice of praying for the dead, dates back to the earliest days of the church. Words of hope and comfort appear on many early Christian monuments, especially in the catacombs. Believers gathered there on the anniversaries of the dead to ask for mercy for the departed souls. There is, for all practical purposes, no biblical basis for the doctrine of purgatory. This is not to say that there is no basis at all for the doctrine, but only that there is no clear biblical basis for it. In 2 Timothy 1:18, St Paul does offer prayers for Onesiphorus, who has died. The earliest mention of prayers for the dead in public Christian worship is by the writer Tertullian in 211 A.D.
Purgatory and Becoming One With God
The Catholic Church’s teaching about Purgatory (Catechism of the Catholic Church), says that all sin, unfortunately, has a life of its own and may have bad effects even after the sinner repents. Sincere repentance includes a desire to repair the damage done by one’s sins. That may or may not be complete before the person dies. The idea is that the souls in purgatory died in the mercy of God, which is why they are called Holy Souls. However, because they still had attachment to sin at the time of their death, they must undergo a spiritual purification of their souls before they are able to fully love God with their whole heart, mind, and soul for all eternity. Therefore purgatory is probably best understood as a process by which we are cleansed (purged) of our residual selfishness, so that we can really become one with God, who is totally oriented to others.
November, the Month of the Holy Souls
It is appropriate that the Catholic Church sets aside November which begins with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, as the Month of the Holy Souls in Purgatory – those who died in grace but who failed in this life to make satisfaction for all their sins. The Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory reflects its understanding of the communion of saints. We are connected to the saints in heaven, the saints-in-waiting in purgatory and other believers here on earth.
In November we are encouraged to pray for those who have gone before us, family and friends, which is natural enough. However it does not end there for we are asked also to pray for those who may have no one to pray for them. In this way we are joined to others in the Christian family and reminded that we are a wide community united in our belief in Jesus and his Resurrection. Those in purgatory cannot pray for themselves but one day they may be able to pray for us when we are in the same position. Perhaps this is why Pope St John XXIII wrote the following words “The devotion to the memory of the dead is one of the most beautiful expressions of the Catholic spirit.”
If you would like to submit a Name or List of Names for the November Altar List of Holy Souls, please complete this form and submit it. We will include your Name(s) during services in St. Saviours over the coming month.