Today the Church celebrates the feast of All Souls, on which we pray in a special way for all of the holy souls in Purgatory. Yesterday, we celebrated the feast of All Saints, in which we witnessed the glorious diversity of God’s holiness lived by men and women throughout the ages. These two feast days inaugurate this final month of the liturgical year, in which the Church especially contemplates the four “Last Things”: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
Purgatory is not one of the Last Things. It is only a temporary state for those on the way to Heaven. If we die in the state of grace, yet still retain various imperfections due to our attachments to creatures, we need to be purified of these imperfections and attachments before we are ready for the fullness of life in God. This purification is called Purgatory. The souls in Purgatory are suffering greatly. This is partly due to the temporal punishment due to their forgiven sins and partly due to the power of their attachments. They will one day be in Heaven, but now they are totally passive and receiving the purifying fire of Jesus’s Healing Love. They need our prayers and sufferings to help them speedily along their way.
Today’s feast of All Souls is especially unique for priests because it is one of only two days (Christmas, as well) in the whole liturgical year in which a priest can celebrate, without any pastoral reason required, three Masses in one day. So valuable is the Mass for the souls in Purgatory, that the Church begs her priests on this day to exercise fully their sublime privilege in offering the Divine Sacrifice. Today, throughout the whole Church, extra Masses are being offered for all the souls undergoing purification in Purgatory, helping them along their way to the Beatific Vision in Heaven.
The first eight days of November are also unique in the whole liturgical year because they are privileged days for visiting cemeteries and praying for the dead there. The Church offers a plenary indulgence, applicable only to the souls in Purgatory, for our visits to cemeteries during these first eight days of this Month of the Dead. If we fulfill the usual conditions, we can do this great act of charity for a soul undergoing its purification by simply visiting the cemetery over the next six days!
This month of November is something of a somber month. In this time, the Church contemplates the mystery of human mortality – the truth that this world is not our final home, that life as we know it is passing away and will end with our death. In the light of this sober meditation on our mortality, we are blessedly invited to consider how we are going to spend eternity. The marvelous and terrible mystery of human freedom is especially in evidence here, as we realize that the difference between Heaven and Hell is simply a matter of our choosing to cooperate with God’s grace.
That’s why it’s important to remember that we begin this month with a celebration of sanctity. Even though we spend the rest of the month focused on praying for the souls in Purgatory, we always have in our vision the end for which the souls in Purgatory – and we on earth – are striving: the all-consuming delight of heavenly glory. As we enter upon this time of contemplation of the Last Things, we beg the intercession of all the saints who have gone before us into the Divine Life of Heaven. We pray especially to those anonymous saints who have been helped through Purgatory by our prayers and sacrifices. We beg especially these special friends of ours to pray for us that we may join them one day in Heaven.
Fr. Joseph Previtali