I originally wrote this post about three years ago and posted it in its first version last year for All Souls Day. The truth is, this is my favourite post on this blog, so I’m reworking it for All Souls Day again this year. ^_^
Today is All Souls Day and so we think of any souls went before us and have entered, not only into heaven, but also into purgatory.
When we say purgatory, we’re really saying the Church of Purgatory. Purgatory is, under several aspects, more Church than the pilgrim Church here-below (Church Militant). Indeed, the Church of Purgatory, like the Church of Heaven, is all one Church with us here on earth: one Church, one Communion of Saints, one People of God, one Body of Christ, one Bride of Christ, one Kingdom and City of God. When we say purgatory, all this is implicit. We are talking about people into one Communion of Saints with us and forming part of one Body of Christ with us. The connection is real, and we should let it come to mind.
Thinking of the Church of Purgatory makes me think of Marcel Văn. His older brother died young, even before Marcel himself, who died at 31 years old. When his brother died, Little Văn gave precious insights to his sister, and his main testimony is towards the unity of the Church under its three states (Earth, Purgatory, Heaven):
Meanwhile, God can give to him a clear understanding of the sufferings we’re enduring right now… that his still-living soul remains strictly united to God for all eternity.
Whether his soul is in purgatory or in heaven, this is true. It would, of course, be difficult for God to grant such “clear understanding” if the wills of the souls in Purgatory were not already fixed on God. In other words, Marcel’s emphasis is: he is also a member of the Church, and, unlike us, if he’s in Purgatory or in Heaven, his will is already definitely locked onto God. Not just the Church of Heaven, whose sins have been cleansed away, is locked onto God. It is also true of the Church of Purgatory; souls in purgatory have their itinerary set for all of eternity, and it is an itinerary that reads “Trinity.” In fact, that’s the fundamental meaning of Purgatory: dead but not damned: certain to always be alive in Christ, with the Father and the Spirit also.
Marcel continues the point by referencing his theme of changing sadness into joy; in fact,
The sadnesses of this world are changed into a life in eternity happiness, in Love.
This is the goal, and his brother is part of it, too. The path begins here on earth, for changing sadness into joy is the “dark night” of John of the Cross; and the purpose of these desolations and purgations is to bring us home, by the route that Jesus himself took on the Cross.
And Marcel offers another thought, echoing his father Saint Alphonsus: it won’t do to become sad about the dead. His brother’s journey is to change sadness into joy. Why be sad? We ought to turn the sadness into joy also. That’s what purgatory is: it’s a process of changing sadness into joy, just as that’s what we should be doing now, on earth. Why? Because we ought to end in Heaven. To get there, we’ll have to follow the Paschal itinerary: Cross and Resurrection. This is what the Church of Jesus Christ is. The unity of the Church, under three states, again becomes apparent in Marcel’s theme of changing sadness into joy.
Of course, the theme of the month of November, in the Western Church, is to pray for the souls of the dead. We will pray. But how will we pray? We can pray in petition: “Lord, by the merits of us poor sinners here-below, please release souls from purgatory.” Prayer of petition is one option. We can beg. We can ask. We can offer sacrifices, including the sacrifice of the Mass, for the souls in purgatory. But… that’s not all we can do. Even in purgatory, even in the Church of Purgatory, the possibilities are greater than this! In another, later letter, Marcel gives an inversion of the idea held by many as to our relationship to the Church of Purgatory:
All the while, we have an invisible army of heroic force, in the person of the souls of purgatory. And from time to time, these souls remind us to pray for them.
The image is one of inversion, deliberate or otherwise. Are the souls in purgatory weak? Is it mostly us who pull the weight in our relationship with them? Marcel says, “Eh, I don’t think of it like this.” The souls of the Church of Purgatory are already, definitely locked onto Jesus. They had heroic force! They have run the race. They are not yet clean of all the traces of sin, but their destination is decided. And so they are an invisible army for God. This invisible army comes to our aid, much like the Church of Heaven. Of course, we are all one Church. So it’s not surprising that they should help us. That is their desire. And “from time to time, these souls remind us to pray for them.” But most of the time, they intend to be our valiant army.
Does this change the emphases in our relationships with the souls in purgatory? for the better? The reality of Church is always one of communion, for the whole Church is the Communion of Saints, deepened as love is deepened; Marcel writes,
These beloved brothers seem so far away from us, but in reality they have never been so close as they are now.
And so it is. They are at our side, the invisible army, none canonized or beatified (for they are not yet in Heaven) – but fighting for us, praying for us, protecting us, all while they urge us, silently and delicately, to live in communion with them and pray for their speedy deliverance also.