Off the beaten path in Lukova, north central Czech Republic, barely stands Saint Georges Church. Built in 1352, this church had been abandoned since the roof collapsed during a 1968 funeral mass. Some townspeople considered this a bad omen, but most of the townspeople however sought to keep the church from being demolished. It played an important role during World War 2 providing both a place to pray and sanctuary. In 2014, Czech artist Jakubb Hadrava was commissioned to convert the church into a piece of dramatic conversational art, hoping money collected would later serve to accomplish complete restoration. A tourist attraction now, the church serves to host plaster ghosts of shrouded figures. “It speaks of a forgotten church and time,” Hadrava maintains, “much like purgatory.” (Pictures above and below)
Indeed, we can qualify Purgatory as “the forgotten church” in that I dare say many Catholics are unaware it is still held as one of our Catholic foundations. I would hazard to expand on that by saying many priests are unaware of it as well. During his tenure as Pope, John Paul 2nd insisted that ignorance of Purgatory is the blame of priests who have failed the Church Suffering: “With respect to the dead, we must have a greater insistence of prayers for them; for offering up Holy Mass for them. That appeal is very much needed today. Purgatory must be taught by the priests of the Church.” (Hungry Souls. by Gerard Van Den Aardweg. © 2009. Tan Books)
The scriptural foundation for Purgatory is laid in three places within the Bible. Following the defeat of Joppa and the Arabians, who had slaughtered many Jews after inviting them to live in peace, Judas summoned his troops to pray for those who had been killed; “[He] did this with a view of the splendid reward that awaits those who have gone onto to rest in godliness, a holy and pious thought. Thus, the living made atonement for the dead, that they might be absolved of their sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:45-46) This is followed by two references of Christ. The first in His parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and after His death in which it is recorded Christ “He was put to death in body, but made alive in the Spirit; He went and made proclamation to the imprisoned souls- those who were disobedient long ago while God waited patiently” (1 Peter 3:19-20).
As priests we all came to understand the Three Churches: the Church Triumphant- those souls and saints in heaven together joined with God’s angelic dominion; the Church Suffering- those souls I discuss here who have died in “friendship with Christ” but need purification from past sins before being allowed entry into heaven, the state of purity and grace with God; and the Church Militant- those of us here on earth who continue the fight against sin. But we must also be mindful that one of the most important obligations we have here in our “fight”, is to pray for the Holy Souls in Purgatory as they can no longer pray for themselves.
Upon death, “death brings an immediate judgment by God,” records Saint Sister Maria Faustina in her published diaries. She herself was accompanied to Purgatory in mystical visitations and urges prayer for the Holy Souls. Those who die of great cause in sacrifice to the Church or justice, or those that would sacrifice their life for another; are martyred and go to heaven cleansed of any sin by the blood they shed. Much the same as Christ. Those who die in denial of Christ, in contempt of Christ and without any love of God in their hearts and have dedicated their lives solely to themselves without concern or love for others, are eternally damned. But those who die in the friendship of Christ, with even the slightest light of God within them, are sent to Purgatory where they might be purified in the fire of Christ’s Sacred Heart. (Prayers and Practices for the Souls in Purgatory. by Fr. Dan Cambra, MIC. © 2017. Marian Press.)
Saint Sister Faustina wrote of Purgatory twenty-four times in her diaries. She even relates how she herself, was told by Jesus she would spend “three days in Purgatory”. Declared a “seraphic soul” and held to a higher degree of accountability. She wrote that Christ explained to her the obligations upon those who are called by God to champion His Church. “To whom much has been given, much will be required.” (Luke 12:48).
Purgatory, of all our Catholic teachings, is probably the one most misunderstood and most often attacked by Catholics themselves. We need to come to a benevolent and beneficial understanding, so that it can be preached and discussed more openly and more intelligently. Alleviating the people’s fear of it. For some reason, we all have the vision of lost souls bobbing up and down in flames, reminiscent of French Fries on a deep oil pot.
Our Catholic Catechism (1030-1032) tells us that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of eternal salvation; but must undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” This is far different, and is not, the eternal damnation of the lost as explained by Saint Sister Faustina.
Purgatory must also not be confused with the old classification of “Limbo”, which was thought to be a place where unbaptized infants and persons were sent having not even been freed from “original sin.” The concept of Limbo was dismissed by Pope John Paul 2nd, believing that infants had no choice in whether or not to be baptized and for those who had not been baptized after an age of consent; would be judged by God on “the merits and intention of their lives, before being consigned to Purgatory.”
It is true that to be purified, a soul is exposed to “fire”; much like gold is smelted to burn off the imperfections and impurities within it, and thereby leave the gold precious and pure. This “fire” that the soul is exposed to, is not a fire of pain or torment, but rather the embracing and cleansing fire the burns from the Sacred Heart of Jesus in love for us all. It should be thought of in this way.
In the immediate judgment upon death, when the soul stands in that wondrous moment before the almighty and ever-living God- the soul will come to learn, as no doubt in my case, a period of purification is needed to make the soul worthy of entrance to heaven. Consigned to Purgatory, the soul is in pain as if separated from a long-lost love. Able to see God at a distance, the soul yearns to once again be in the presence of God and feel his embrace and love. It is this “pain”, this unrequited love if you will, that torments the soul. To reduce it to the old maxim, so close yet so far.
I would be remiss if I did not discuss the evidence of Purgatory in the “Protestant Paradox.” Purgatory is and remains solely a Catholic concept. Most of the Protestant faith maintains that Purgatory diminishes the sacrifice of Christ. They also saw it as a way to fleece people of money, for a past track to heaven. People who do not understand the comfort of the doctrine of Purgatory- and indeed the need for it, can be convinced of it by a rather simple challenge. Ask those, if they pray for the dead or pray for their deceased loved ones? Once they say yes- we’ve made them Catholics! For if they believe that the death of Christ upon the Cross is all that is needed, then the soul can be in only one of two places: Heaven, where our prayers are not needed or Hell, where our prayers cannot help. So, like the rest of us to be, these souls are no doubt in Purgatory.
What is our duty then, our obligation, as good Catholics; as the Church Militant who must fight for these Holy Souls? First and foremost, prayer. There are formats of many prayers built upon the goal of releasing from Purgatory the Holy Souls and gaining for them absolution to enter heaven.
Even though the eternal damnation of sin can be removed through the Sacrament of Reconciliation or the absolution of a priest; there remains temporal punishment in Purgatory to perfectly cleanse and purify the soul of sin. Again, we must understand this is not a torment but rather a grace in our journey home to God.
This then begs the question, are we all destined for Purgatory? We can answer that by reflecting on the fact that Saint Sister Faustina herself was told in a mystic visitation; she would spend three days in Purgatory. And who really know how long one of God’s “days” are? This prompts us to consider the seven-day creation of the world. Is God’s day, twenty-four hours? A one thousand-year, day? Ten thousand years? Ten million years?
Notwithstanding, there are things we can do for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Practices we can share with others, if we have the courage to preach and discuss Purgatory at all.
Greatest of these, is to submit the Holy Soul to the purification and sacrifice of the Holy Eucharistic Mass. To uplift before Christ in His presence at the Mass and pray forgiveness, is the greatest way to seek His mercy.
Likewise, as no son can deny his mother, to invoke the Blessed Mother Mary in the mission of Holy Souls. Saint Sister Faustina records in her diary, seeing our Blessed Mother offering refreshment to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. As He hung dying on the Cross, Christ gave to His Mother Mary, the parentage of all souls on earth. In her perpetual love for us- as an attentive caring mother, Mary ceaselessly gives of herself and her special privileges on our behalf. If we invoke her, by means of the Rosary or Divine Chaplet of Mercy, she shall approach her Son Jesus and beg mercy. Consider the visitations, blessings and desires of Our Blessed Mother at Fatima or Heede. She has gained the just designation of Queen of the Holy Souls. As I said just previously, what son can deny his mother?
Similarly, there are other things we can personally do and instruct others in doing to advance the cause of the Church Suffering. These are Plenary Indulgences and Partial Indulgences, and both help not only the Holy Souls but serve to offset our own personal sufferings in Purgatory.
A Plenary Indulgence is to sponsor a Eucharistic Mass and attend Mass, to pray the Rosary or Mercy Chaplet, walk the Way of the Cross, sit in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and spend time each day immersed in reading and meditating on scripture. Do each of these in sincerity of heart and in devotion to God.
In a lesser way, an indulgence for Holy Souls as well as our own soul; can be obtained by dedicating our sufferings and our works. Prayer- always prayer. For our loved ones, for our neighbors, for our world. To uplift before God the cause of someone else and not a prayer of selfish pursuit. To be the physical action of Christ while here on earth. That is, to be charitable to just causes and the Church. To be compassionate to those you encounter who are homeless, destitute, ill, infirmed or imprisoned. To extend to everyone the mercy, forgiveness and love of Christ. Albeit in no small matter, these acts are witnessed not only by God but by both the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering. To call to mind the Holy Souls as you do good works, serve to hasten their journey toward our heavenly home.
There is a Holy Church filled with wonderful yearning souls, who for an instant stood in the presence of our almighty ever-living God. They felt His love. The soul came to realize and understand it’s existence and where spiritual home was. In a temporary separation and in the sadness of that fact, the soul languishes in Purgatory. As with all other obligations of our Holy Office as priests, or as caring Christians- it must be our purpose, our fight- the Church Militant, to get these Holy Souls home to God.
Let us not forget again, the Forgotten Church.
“Eternal Father, turn Your merciful gaze upon the souls suffering in Purgatory, who are enfolded in the Most Compassionate Sacred Heart of Jesus. I beg You, by the sorrowful Passion of Your Son Jesus, and by all the bitterness with which His most sacred Soul was ignorantly subjected; manifest Your mercy to those souls that are under Your just scrutiny. Look upon them in no other way than through the Wounds of Jesus, Your dearly beloved Son, who for their sake He did give up His own life; washing them in His own blood and water, as gushed forth from His side, in a fountain of eternal mercy. Holy God. Holy Mighty One. Holy Immortal One. Have mercy on us and on the Holy Souls. Save us from the fires of hell and take all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Your mercy. In Jesus name, Amen. (Diary of Sister Faustina. 1227).
Father Wolf is a retired police officer in New Jersey, the pastor of St. Aelred’s Parish, and an Assisting Priest at Saint Miriam Parish and Friary in the Old Catholic Churches International.