Sunday November 2nd. 2014                                                                                      Charity registration No. SC 002876

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Where on earth, some non-Catholics ask, did Catholics get this idea of purgatory? It starts with the feast we celebrated yesterday, All Saints, the fundamental Catholic belief in the Communion of Saints.

The Church triumphant, as it is traditionally called, are those who did God’s will and were so united to Him in this life that we are certain they are now with God in heaven for all eternity.

The Church militant, are those still engaged in the battle of good and evil, striving to be loyal to God in their love for him and their neighbour. They are children of God doing their best to follow His will, to unite themselves to Him and build up His kingdom on earth. St Paul used to talk this way when he wrote to the faithful as ‘the  Saints in Corinth and Rome, simply because by their baptism they possessed the presence of the Holy Spirit within them, and so were holy.

Then there is the Church Suffering or the Church Penitent. They are all those who have died and are in the process of being made ready to enter heaven.

Catholics believe these are not three churches but one, united in the Holy Trinity.  We are intimately connected with each section of the Church, which we call  the communion of saints.

The faithful on earth are in communion with each other by sharing the same faith and sacraments and practices, by following the same authority and assisting each other with prayers and practical assistance. We are also in communion with the saints in heaven by honouring them, imitating them, praying to them, and seeking their intercession for us.

That is why there was such interest  when St Mary MacKillop was canonised. She was given to us as a model for our own lives, as someone in heaven we can talk to and as someone we might ask to pray on our behalf for the graces and miracles we need.

Not only can we commune with the saints on earth and the saints in heaven: we are also in communion with the saints, or holy souls, in purgatory. How? By remembering them, praying for them and having Masses offered for their soul, also doing good works for them. They in turn can pray for our needs. They are prayed for at every Mass.

Some people may not be ready for heaven when they die, yet they are not beyond God’s mercy.

They have not chosen to go against God forever by a stubborn will or terrible unrepentant deeds or a bad course of life, but they still need some realignment of heart, still have some venial sin unforgiven or some attachment to more serious sins which have been forgiven in confession  but for which  some satisfaction is still to me made. The joyous doctrine of purgatory means that they are Holy Souls and are sure of heaven. It is God’s extension of mercy to them beyond the grave.

Our Scriptures encourage our prayers for the dead. In the words of the Book of Wisdom: they might suffer some time of trial on earth or some purification after death, but they will see God and be in peace.

The mercy of God is so infinite and full of compassion as we know from the plea of the thief on the cross. In the dying moments of his life, he appealed to Jesus: Lord, remember me when you come in to your kingdom.  

And the reply from Jesus was immediate: This very day you will be with me in paradise

Thirteen hundred years ago a famous English Benedictine priest gave us some beautiful thoughts about death.

He wrote: We give them back to you, O God, who gave them first to us. Yet as you did not lose them in giving, so we do not lose them by their return. Not as the world gives do you give. What you give you do not take away. For what is yours is also ours. We are yours and life is eternal. And love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is but the limit of our sight.

(The Venerable Bede, 673-735)


"I stand upon the ocean shore.
A ship at my side opens her sail
to the morning breeze and begins to glide across the water blue.

She is a beautiful sight. I stand and watch her as she glides
with grace and strength into the clouds on the horizon.

Just where the sky and the ocean meet and come to mingle with one another.

She is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her,
And just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her;

And just at the moment when someone at my side says, "She is gone",
There are others on the other side who are watching her coming,
And their voices take up a glad shout,
"There she comes!" – and that is dying

For within the mind and heart she can always be found.
For life is eternal, Love is immortal, and death is only a horizon,
And a horizon is nothing save the limits of our sight.

The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her

What is dying?