Allow me to confess up front that I have little understanding of the Church’s current teaching on the subject of Purgatory. When I was growing up, my simplistic understanding of Purgatory was that that was where you spent time atoning for your sins prior to being admitted to Heaven. It wasn’t a pleasant place (cleansing fires and all that), but you knew if you made it to Purgatory, you were en route to Heaven so it was, by and large, a positive story.
The way it was supposed to work as I perceived it, was that the more sinful you had been in your life on earth, the longer your sentence in Purgatory. We were also taught, that through pious acts with sincere good intentions, one could earn Indulgences. These we understood to be essentially time off from Purgatory for good behavior. There were also Plenary Indulgences, for particularly pious acts, which essentially wiped your slate clean. For example going to mass on the first Friday or every month for nine months in a row. No small feat when you think about it. Now while Martin Luther protested against Indulgences in the 16th century, in part triggering the Reformation, I quite liked the idea. Even though it made me uncomfortably aware of how much time I might need to log in Purgatory before making it to the Pearly Gates.
In the month of November, we focus in a special way on those who have gone before us, especially family members and friends. Also it’s a time to ponder what might await us after our earthly pilgrimage is done. It can in some respects be a sad and somber time. As Christian Catholics though, we believe in Eternal Life. However, Jesus showed us that grieving a loss is a normal, even essential, part of life. In John 11 it says that “Jesus wept”, just before He raised Lazarus from the dead: clearly a message for all of us that belief in the resurrection does not preclude mourning.
In one of his reflections, Fr. Rolheiser talks about how we must go through painful departures many times in our lives. Whether it’s children headed to school for the first time, young adults going to college, people leaving home to get married, and so on. We know these transitions are an essential part of life and even our personal growth. Moreover, as we make these and many other changes, we bring back to our friends and family a “new” person incarnated through this process, often creating a deeper, richer, more mature relationship.
Rolheiser also posits that the same might be said about those who’ve died. That over time, once we are past our grieving, there can be a real sense of connection with our deceased loved ones. Different from when they were alive, but deep nonetheless. I will admit to having experienced this myself, especially with my mother. While I don’t see ghostly appearances or hear her whisper like in the movies, there’s a certain real comfort or sense of who she was that I feel whenever she comes to mind.
In thinking about those whom I knew who are no longer with us, I realized that over time many of the things that had annoyed or irritated me about them has fallen away. Small animosities, arguments we might have had, ways in which they offended me and so forth, seem somehow irrelevant. It occurred to me that while some of this rehabilitation of my memory of them might just be “time healing all wounds”. But could it be something more?
Could it be that as the deceased go through Purgatory and let go all human attachments in preparation for being in the eternal presence of God, a change takes place not only for them but for us too. That as they let go of everything that kept them from God, we also somehow sense it. And that in spite of our own humanity and weaknesses, we can truly begin to know them for who they really are, our brothers and sisters in the communion of saints, made in the divine image and likeness of God.