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32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Back when I was a child, that’s right, five years ago, in my home parish, at

the back of the church there were four wall safes where you could pop in

your coins for different purposes. I understood what three of them were

for: “The Poor”, “Flowers” and “Building Fund”. But there was a fourth

one which said “Holy Souls”. Being a child, I imagined that that meant

nuns. They were “holy souls”. But it actually meant the Holy Souls in

Purgatory. I later learnt that the way it worked was, that for every five

pounds given, a Mass would be said for the Holy Souls. We had a similar

box in my previous parish, except that inflation had caught up with things,

and a Mass intention went into the bulletin for every ten pounds instead.


When I was at secondary school, we were told in history that Purgatory

was one of the dividing lines of the Reformation. Luther railed against the

selling of indulgences and offering of Masses for the deceased, and the

other Reformers followed suit. Following the reforms of the Council of

Trent (sometimes called the Counter-Reformation), indulgences still exist,

but they are no longer sold – you can get them automatically without being

given a certificate or anything like that. You can get an indulgence either

for yourself, or for someone else who has died, and if the person who has

died doesn’t need it, then I presume God assigns it to someone else

instead. You can’t give them to someone who is still alive. An indulgence

can be either partial, which means it takes away part of your purgatory, or

plenary, i.e. it takes away the whole lot. A partial indulgence is easier to

get, and might include simply saying a few prayers. A plenary indulgence

usually requires, in addition to whatever is stipulated, not being attached to

any sins, going to confession, receiving Holy Communion and praying for

the Pope (such as saying the Our Father and the Hail Mary). You don’t

need to do all those on the same day. You may or may not know that there

is also something a bit like a plenary indulgence as part of the Last Rites of

the Church, called the Apostolic Pardon. Unlike a plenary indulgence,

there aren’t any other conditions attached, so if you are unconscious and

unable to go to Holy Communion or confess your sins, then the Sacrament

of the Sick will take away your sins and you still get to receive the

indulgence. But I guess that if you were guilty of GBH and still thought

that the recipient deserved everything he got, then the indulgence would be

only partial, not plenary.


So, what is Purgatory, then? The Church speaks about Purgatory as a

process of purification in order to enter heaven. At school, the history

teacher spoke about it being a bit like a washing machine, getting our soul

clean for heaven. CS Lewis wasn’t a Catholic, but he believed in

Purgatory too, and he justified it like this:


“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if

God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags

drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will

upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the

joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no

objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so,

sir.’ ” (CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, chapter 20)


So Purgatory is not about God inflicting punishment on us because we

weren’t good enough, it’s about being purified by the grace of the Lord.

Think of it a bit in terms of alcohol gel – if our skin is intact, then it

doesn’t hurt, and the germs are outside our body. But if the skin on our

hands is broken, which means germs could have gotten inside, then the

alcohol gel hurts as it cleanses our hands of any bacteria and viruses. If

the skin on our hands hadn’t become broken in the first place, it would

have been a painless experience. Similarly, without sin, we don’t need

Purgatory, but if we arrive before the Lord at the end of our lives and there

is still even the after-effects of sin, then we need Purgatory to make us

clean – and it might hurt a bit.


That leads to my next point – prevention is always better than cure. It is

always better to be prepared to meet the Lord, rather than to be caught

unawares. The foolish bridesmaids thought they had enough oil, but it

proved to be insufficient. Are we sufficiently “topped up” with God’s

grace, or are we in danger of being found lacking? There is a football

team called Aston Villa, and their motto is “Prepared”. But sometimes,

they go on the football pitch and the other team still wins.


Purgatory is a gift, part of the mercy of God, because without it, very few

would be able to get into heaven. This month we remember those who

have gone before us, and this Sunday those who have died in war. I

suggest that we not only “remember” them, but also pray for them – and

encourage others to do the same for us when it’s our turn.

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