Bishop's Interview -- Purgatory: The final stage of achieving holiness
Editor: We begin each November with the feast of All Saints on Nov. 1 and the Feast of All Souls on Nov. 2. Please begin by explaining the meaning of these feasts and the difference between the two.
Bishop Vásquez: The Solemnity of All Saints is an important feast day for the Catholic Church because it remembers all those holy men and women (known and unknown) who we believe are now with God. They were men and women from different countries and cultures; some were poor, some were religious, some were husbands, wives, children and young people. No matter what their status was in this life on earth, they revealed Jesus Christ through the holiness of their lives. On All Saints Day we remember those men and women throughout the history of the church who have lived their lives in such a way that they reflected the presence of Christ in the world and we believe because of their holiness they truly are with God.
The feast of All Souls remembers all the souls in purgatory, and particularly our own beloved dead –– our brothers, sisters, relatives and friends who we remember and for whom we hope that God will open the doors of Heaven. Our hope and prayer for them is that God will welcome them into his presence to be with him for all eternity. On these two very special feasts, we celebrate the communion of saints, which is the union among all saints in Heaven, the faithful on earth and the souls in purgatory.
Editor: On the feast of All Souls we are reminded to pray for the souls in purgatory. Why is this?
Bishop Vásquez: We believe that those who died in the state of grace but committed minor sins enter purgatory to be purified. That is to say we believe as Catholics that there has to be a process of purification before we enter into God’s presence. No one is perfect, and even if we die in a state of grace, there still may be imperfection in our souls.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” This state is what we call purgatory, or the process of purgation –– purification so that our whole soul is completely attuned to God, and is fully in love with God.
We don’t attain perfection from one moment to the next, but rather it takes a whole lifetime of wanting to be perfected and the only one who can perfect us is God. It’s not an immediate thing. Because we are historical beings, it takes time for each individual to reach that point of perfection. Here we also must remember that God is the only one who can truly make us perfect. It is by the grace of God that we are perfected and welcomed into his presence.
The church’s teaching on purgatory can often be controversial because people cannot find a direct reference to purgatory in Scripture, but there are allusions to it in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. We know that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us from sin. However, we also know that holiness cannot be obtained immediately; therefore, God works with each of us to bring about sanctification. We believe purgatory is the final stage of achieving holiness.
St. John Paul II gave a teaching on purgatory during a general audience in 1999. “Sacred Scripture teaches us that we must be purified if we are to enter into perfect and complete union with God. Jesus Christ, who became the perfect expiation for our sins and took upon himself the punishment that was our due, brings us God’s mercy and love. But before we enter into God’s Kingdom every trace of sin within us must be eliminated, every imperfection in our soul must be corrected. This is exactly what takes place in purgatory. Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God but are immersed in the love of Christ. Neither are they separated from the saints in heaven –– who already enjoy the fullness of eternal life –– nor from us on earth –– who continue on our pilgrim journey to the Father’s house. We all remain united in the Mystical Body of Christ, and we can therefore offer up prayers and good works on behalf of our brothers and sisters in purgatory.”
We know that we as human beings are created by God to be with him for all eternity. But we all make choices that either bring us closer to God or separate us from God. There are days when we turn fully to God. We give ourselves to him in a more complete way, and then the next day we fail terribly and we seem to go the other way. This is why we need, of course, the sacrament of reconciliation and God’s mercy.
Editor: What are some ways that we can go about praying for all of the souls in purgatory?
Bishop Vásquez: One of the most important ways is on All Souls Day when we offer up our sacrifices and our celebration of the Eucharist. The celebration of the Eucharist is the primary way of interceding and praying for the souls in purgatory. During every Mass, we pray God will release them from purgatory so that they can be at rest for all eternity with God. We should pray every day for the souls in purgatory because our hope is that one day somebody is going to remember us.
Another excellent way is by visiting the cemetery and spending time there remembering and praying for our loved ones who have died. Placing flowers on their graves and recalling the wonderful things that God did through them that helped us also grow in our Catholic faith are wonderful ways that we can pray for those in purgatory. The rosary is another beautiful way of remembering and praying for our beloved dead.
Editor: Nearly all of us have suffered the loss of a loved one and as the holidays draw near our loss often feels magnified. How can we offer consolation to those who are suffering?
Bishop Vásquez: We are fortunate that the church calendar annually celebrates the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. As we draw near to the holidays, these feasts are a good way for us to remember all of our beloved dead. During the holidays, there can be a heightened sense of loss and separation from them. However, as Christians we believe in the resurrection of the dead, which we profess during the Creed every Sunday. We believe one day we are going to see those beloved dead again. We look forward to that day when all tears will be wiped away.
Yes, it is human to long for those we have lost, but we are people of hope. We go forth firmly in the belief that we shall see the Lord again and we shall see our beloved dead again and be united with the Lord.
Editor: What is your prayer for all of those who are suffering the loss of a loved one or the souls in purgatory for that matter?
Bishop Vásquez: I pray that we would all experience consolation. That we, of course, may find consolation from our brothers and sisters here with us and that we may find consolation in the lives of the saints. May we find comfort especially through our Blessed Mother Mary, who experienced the loss of her Son on the cross. I pray that all who mourn the loss of a loved one will have hope that one day we will all be united with our loving and merciful God in Heaven. During November, may we celebrate the gift of eternal life with God, which Jesus Christ offers to all humanity.