"It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sin" (II Mach 12:46)
Filled with holy joy the Church looked up yesterday to those sublime regions where the saints of heaven without number rejoice around the throne of God, and in her gladness of heart, clad in festive garb, she let songs of praise resound in honor of those who, after having ended their life in happiness, have obtained the crown of joy of eternal life.
Tell me, my dear friends, why the Church, our mother, rejoice yesterday? Why did she clothe herself in festive garments? Why did she join in joyous song as if she had a part in the eternal happiness of the blessed? But do not ask, my friends! The Church, the mother of all Christians, the mother of all those who gained in her bosom that inexpressible bliss of heaven, rejoiced with perfect right that so many mi lions of her dear children obtained the crown of glory for their faithfulness and are happy and blessed for all eternity. She rejoiced as a mother rejoices when she finds that the greatest happiness has fallen to the lot of her children.
But to-day her joy has suddenly changed into sorrow; her joyful songs are silenced; she sounds her lamentations in doleful chants; no longer is she attired in festive garments; her vestments are those of mourning.
Oh, do not ask why! The Church, the mother of all Christians, to-day turns away her eyes from those of her children who exult in the realms above, in the joys of heaven, and looks upon her other children who are still detained in that abode of suffering where they are purified for their sojourn to heaven, and because she loves them no less than those others and longs to see them partake of that divine happiness, therefore she laments and prays:
"Lord, O merciful God, lead those souls also to that abode of eternal hap pines which Thou hast deigned to grant to so many millions of Thy children."
It is through us, my dear friends, it is from our lips that the holy Church sends forth these utterances; it is from our tongues that her prayers to the throne of of mercy are addressed. This is the reason why she sends us to-day to the cemetery that we may, over the graves of our parents and deceased relatives, friends and Christian comrades, invoke God's mercy for their souls and entreat with sorrowful heart their deliverance from that purifying fie in which they have to atone for all the sins which have not been expiated by them in this world. And this is why she holds before us to-day that eternal truth of our faith, that by means of our prayers we may come to the rescue of these suffering souls.
Oh, how mindful our holy Church is, that she may not forget any of her children and ever longs to see every one of them happy and blessed. And you do right, my dear friends, when, rejecting that unbelief which is called "evangelical" truth, that unbelief which does not want to know anything of a purgatory in the world to come and of the efficacy of the prayers for the dead -- if you, I say, true to your faith in the holy Catholic Church, come together here on this day, the feast day of the poor souls, and gather round the altar of the Almighty, and through the most holy sacrifice of the Mass, offered by one of your brethren and through your own most fervent prayers, come to the rescue of these poor souls!
Then our faith is well founded; therefore fulfill as often as you can these holy acts of charity, and so that you may be encouraged to practice them more and more I will prove to you to-day the truth of our faith, and assert that --
Firstly, there is a purgatory in the world beyond; and that,
Secondly, we may help the poor souls to their deliverance from said purgatory.
Listen, then. St. John the apostle says in the Apocalypse (21: 27): "There shall not enter into it anything defiled." Sin, even the smallest sin, stains the soul of man and defiles it to such a degree that it cannot appear before the face of God and have a share in the kingdom of heaven. But such a soul which passes into the next world afflicted with such small and venial sins be forever cast into the torments of hell?
Certainly not; for our Saviour himself contradicts plainly such a belief by calling the just man, though he fall seven times, -- into small sins,-- still a just man, and who, on account of being a just man, though he fall into venial sins, still belongs to the number of the elect. When, therefore, God can, on the one side, not receive into the kingdom of heaven such a just soul which has passed away from this earth afflicted with venial sins, and, on the other hand, cannot condemn a just soul to the torments of hell, then there must be necessarily some other place set aside where these souls may purify themselves from such defects, so that they may be able to reach the kingdom of heaven, to which, on account of their justness, they have a claim.
Of such a purification of just souls in the world to come the Holy Ghost says in Scripture through the prophet Zacharias: "I will refine them as silver is refined, and I will try them as gold is tried" (Zach 13: 9)
If, then, silver and gold are burned in the furnace for no other purpose than that they may be freed from dross, consequently in th same way those souls will be tried and purified in fire by the Lord. Therefore the Holy Ghost says of those souls which the Lord has received into heaven after such trial and purification: "As gold in the furnace he hath proved them" (Sap 3: 6)
This truth, my dear friends, which has been proclaimed to us by the Holy Ghost has ever been adhered to by God's chosen people as well as by our holy Church.
Therefore we find already under the old law that the Jews brought sacrifices to the temple to deliver the souls of the dead from purgatory. Judas Maccabeus, who adhered to the faith of his fathers with such great zeal, sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver as a sacrifice for his brethren who had fallen in battle, and Holy Scripture says distinctly in the second book of Machabees, where this occurrence is narrated: "It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from sin" )II Mach 12: 46).
Now, then, my dear people, how can such sacrifices and prayers refer to deliverance of the damned in hell? Never! For this deliverance is impossible. Consequently God must have created some other place from which it is possible to effect the deliverance of the souls of the dear departed.
This faith which is so clearly exp[expressed in the Old Covenant has been confirmed with equal distinctness by our Saviour Jesus Christ himself. He call purgatory a prison, and says: "Amen, I say to thee thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing" (Matt 5: 26)
In these words Jesus speaks of atonement for sins, of a delivery from the prison, but the punishment in hell is eternal; hence He speaks distinctly of a temporary place of punishment, of a place of purification, where the souls of the just can be freed of unrepented sins and purified for their entrance into the kingdom of heaven. At another time our Divine Saviour says: "But he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come.
Could the Divine Saviour speak more explicitly of a place of purification in the other world than He has in these words? According to Him the pardoning of sins is possible in the other world, but this cannot be done in hell, because the Saviour himself calls hell "eternal fire". And it cannot be done in heaven, for the apostle says: "Nothing unclean can enter the kingdom of heaven." Therefore there must be some other place where it is possible to obtain forgiveness, and it is this other place which we call "purgatory".
In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul the apostle states the exact way by which the soul of man may be freed from unrepented sins: "Every man's work shall be manifest: for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire: and the fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is." we must repeat again that the apostle could not have spoken thus of hell-fire, because he would have then contradicted the teachings of our Lord. His words, therefore, refer to place of purification, from which, according to these words, a delivery is possible, but not otherwise than through fire.
But why should we add further proof? The words in Holy Scripture, the sayings of our Lord and His apostles, are all plain enough, and for that reason has our Church, from the time of the apostles down to our own days, ever steadfastly adhered to and preserved the belief i a place of purification in the world to come.
Dionysius the Areopagite writes during the first century of a place of purification. In the writings of Origenes in the year 120 this dogma of the Church is expressly mentioned. listen to his own words. he says: "When the soul of a man brings with it into eternity many good works and only a few sinful deeds, these must be loosened from it like lead by fire, and that which remains is pure gold. The more lead one brings with him, the more one will have to burn (in the fire of purification)," Let us listen to St. Augustine. He calls this place of purification a passing fire and says: "he will be saved, but only as by fire." "One is cleansed not from heavy, but light sins. The greater the number of our sins, the longer we will have to remain in this passing fire of purification." We therefore find this belief in the earliest days of the Church. She has received it from the apostles and will hold steadfastly to it until the end of time. It is founded upon the revelation of the Holy Ghost and the Gospel of our Lord, and it is therefore pr oven without any doubt that there is a place of purification, a purgatory in the world yonder, wherein those souls which cannot appear before the face of the Lord on account of minor sins will be cleansed and purified until they are declared worthy of being united to their God.
For the present I will not speak, my dear people, of the pains and tortures which the souls of the departed will have to suffer in purgatory, as the apostle gives us to understand sufficiently the frightfulness of the tortures by the sentence: "They will be cleansed as by fire." Enough for us to fell anxious that perhaps, with arms stretched forth, they call to us and exclaim with the abandoned Job: "Have pity on me, have pity on me, at least you my friends."
Oh, my dear Christians, children or brothers or sisters perhaps of the deceased that are lying buried in graves, don't be hard of heart at the sighs and supplications of your parents and relations. Fold your hands, raise them to God, and succor by prayer and good works the suffering souls from their tortures. They cannot help themselves, but we can rescue them by our prayers and good deeds. Of this we will speak now.
St. Augustine, my dear Christians, points out plainly in which way we may come to the rescue of the poor souls in purgatory. "There is no doubt," he says, "that through the prayers of the Church, through the most holy sacrifice, through deeds of charity we may aid the departed." Prayer is, then, a certain means by which we can further the deliverance of the poor souls. The Holy Ghost explicitly states this fact in Holy Scripture. "it is," he says, "a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sin" (II Mach 12: 46).
Expressly -- listen again -- expressly the Holy Ghost says in Holy Scripture that the deceased by our prayers "may be loosed sin."
I will therefore ask to-day all those who forget their deceased brethren, what love is this which does not think daily of the deliverance of our deceased fellow-Christians? What love is this that can forget those who in life loved us so dearly? What love is this that can forget those who have done for us so many acts of kindness while they were living? Child, where is your love for your deceased parents? Brother, where is your love for your deceased brother, that you do not pray every day so that those dear ones may be "loosened from their sins"? Have you forgotten your own flesh and blood? Have you forgotten the many acts of kindness they did for you during their lifetime? Have you forgotten those promises you gave them before death closed their eyes? Oh! listen to the groans of your beloved dear ones in that awful prison. pay by devout prayer the little mite they are still owing and rescue those who have perhaps waited a very long time for their deliverance.
The saintly Cardinal Hugo exhorts us with impressive words to remember this duty, and says: "To obtain deliverance for the dead, you that are still among the living of this world should remember them in your prayers, so that they may gain through eternal peace." In a still more urgent manner St. Augustine calls upon us with the words: "Forget not the dead and hasten to pray for them." Yes, make haste! Perhaps you may be able this very day to liberate from that prison by a devout prayer a soul which otherwise might have to sigh and suffer for many a day.
Another means by which we can free the poor souls from their suffering is, according to St. Augustine, the holy sacrifice of the mass. St. Monica, the mother of this saint, recognized the truth of this, and said on her death-bed to her son: "Don't think of burying my body in magnificent style and of embalming me and where you will bury me. Only think of one thing, I beg of you. Remember me at the altar of the Lord and offer up the most holy sacrifice of the Mass for the benefit of my soul." St. Monica, my dear people, knew very well that there is no better remedy for the souls of the deceased than the most holy sacrifice of the Mass. When the good Judas Machabeus sent twelve thousand drachms to the temple in Jerusalem as a sacrifice for the benefit of his soldiers who had fallen in battle, so that by virtue of this sacrifice they might be free from their sins, then tell me, may we not reasonably expect the deliverance of souls from purgatory by the greater virtue of the most holy sacrifice of the Mass?
If the sacrifice of earthly things which have not the least value in the eyes of the Lord, and only obtain value before Him from our good intentions which accompany the sacrifice, is considered efficacious for obtaining deliverance for the souls in purgatory, how much greater must be the efficacy of the sacrifice of the Lord's own body, the value of which no man has ever been able to imagine, to aid the poor souls to their deliverance! And if the bloody sacrifice on the cross, which was able to atone for the curse of God brought upon mankind by the greatest sins of men, and which was able to open the gates of heaven, which had been closed on account of those sins, may we not expect that the same sacrifice of our Lord, offered bloodlessly o the altar, would be efficacious enough to free the poor souls of a few little sins, small faults which had not changed God's love into wrath, but only dimmed it?
St. Chrysostom expresses a great truth when referring to that sacrifice which Job offered up for the purification of his children. He says: "If Job's sacrifice purified his children, who can doubt that through our sacrifice [of the holy Mass] we can bring consolation to the poor souls?" And therefore St. Anthony is justified in saying: "The most holy sacrifice of the Mass, in which the passion of our Lord is perpetually celebrated, is in itself the finest and best remedy for the souls in purgatory. It is the staff upon which they raise themselves into heaven and eternal rest." By authority of Scripture and the holy fathers the Church pronounces this dogma and says: "The souls in purgatory are aided by the holy sacrifice of the Mass."
According to the opinion of St. Gregory and St. Jerome, the poor souls in purgatory sigh and long for nothing so much as that the most holy sacrifice of the Mass be offered up for them. Listen to St. Gregory's own words: "The offering of the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the poor souls in purgatory is of great benefit to them, and they long for it with grievous wailings." St. Jerome is of the opinion that the holy sacrifice causes alleviation to the suffering of the poor souls while it is being offered up to the Heavenly Father. These are his words: "The souls who are suffering in purgatory and whom the priest prays for on the altar during Mass do not feel the tortures of purgatory during the time that the Mass lasts. They ask for nothing more, they wish for nothing more than this bloodless sacrifice." hasten then, my dear friends, to this source of aid for the poor souls as often as you can. Offer up to the Heavenly Father with the priest on the altar the Lamb of God as a ransom for their sins. Offer up the great merits of this holy sacrifice for their faults and shortcomings for which they still may have to suffer, and pray, "O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, give theses poor souls eternal peace!"
A third medium by which we can be of help to the poor souls in their sufferings are works of charity. Do not let us stop to ask for a proof of this. If we can turn the merits of our prayers, the merits of the most holy sacrifice of the Mass, over for the benefit of the poor souls, we can in like manner turn over the merits of our works of charity which we are practicing for the good of suffering humanity, for the benefit of the poor souls. One thing is certain: our acts of charity turn God's anger into mercy, and if we at the same moment at which we have brought forth God's mercy by a merciful act of our own recommend to the Lord's mercy one or all souls which still have to suffer, He will have pity on those souls.
The Holy Ghost says: "Water quencheth a flaming fire, and alms resisteth sins" (Ecclus 3: 33)
Therefore St. Augustine is justified in saying: "The alms of a Christian is a sacrifice of propitiation whereby God's wrath is appeased toward the sinner." "Yes," continues St. Chrysostom, 'alms does even more. It stands before the judgment seat of God and asks the Lord not only for mercy, but also moves Him to pronounce a merciful judgment."
See, then, O Christian, alms "loosen from sin;" "extinguishes sin;" it appeases God's wrath before the sinner, "it moves Him to pronounce a merciful judgment over the sinner!"
Well,then, a little gift, a small part of your earthly goods, a little something from that which your deceased friends have left you — give it to a needy person and say: "O merciful God, I offer Thee this gift of charity in the person of this poor man. Be merciful to those souls that are separated from You and are still suffering in purgatory. Remit their sins and deliver them from their suffering. Thou hast said, 'Give, and it shall be given to you.' See, O Lord! I give to this poor person; I give to Thee. Give me for it, I pray you, that soul on whose behalf I offer You this gift, the soul of my father, of my mother, the soul of my brother and sister, and receive it into Your eternal peace!"
Let us, then, my dear Christians, in this manner come to the rescue of those poor souls. Are they not our parents, our brothers, our sisters, our relatives and friends who are perhaps still suffering beyond? They are our parents, our relations; our father to whom we owe our existence; our brother, our sister, who loved us so dearly; our friends who were so dear to our hearts. Oh! do not let us be hard against our own flesh and blood. Do not let us forget them who call to us every day: "Have pity on us, have pity on us, at least you our friends."
Let us pray for them every day; let us go to the altar fro them and receive the most holy sacrament; let us give alms to the poor for them, so that God in His mercy may soon receive them into Hs eternal peace and heavenly joys. Amen!
(From "Sermons for the Sundays and Feast of the Year" by Cure of Ars (St. Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney). Sermons for the Feast Days of the Year: All Souls' Day, "All Souls' Day", pp. 8 - 16. Neumann Press. Long Prairie, MN. 1984.)