Periodically I’m asked what we Catholics believe regarding Heaven, Hell and Purgatory and why a Catholic Funeral is not a simple celebration of life. So, for this weekend of All Saints and All Souls here is a simple restatement of Catholic belief regarding death and what follows.
Death is life’s moment of truth when we shall see and recognise ourselves for what we truly are. It is then that God waits to accept us into his infinite loving embrace. Some may fall into God’s arms immediately. For others the embarrassment of fickle, imperfect, vacillating love may prevent an unconditional acceptance of God’s embrace until love is purified and refined. Sadly, some may be so full of hatred and denial of everything good that they turn their face forever away from love, from God. An eternity without love is simply Hell.
On the other hand, Heaven is an endless moment of love. Nothing more separates the saints from the God whom they have sought their life long. Together with the angels they rejoice eternally in and with God. Observe a couple in love, oblivious to the world as they look into each other’s eyes or a suckling baby looking up to its mother’s face — then you have some inkling of Heaven. To be able to see God face to face is like a single, never-ending moment of love.
Purgatory, often imagined as a place, is actually a condition. One who dies in God’s grace but whose frail and wavering love is in need of purifying of selfishness is in the state we name, Purgatory. After Peter’s betrayal, Jesus looked at him but Peter could only turn in shame to weep bitterly — he withdrew, unable to accept Jesus’ forgiving gaze of love. Just such a purgatory, a purification of love probably awaits most at death — the Lord will look at us full of love but on our side burning shame and remorse for past faithlessness and unloving behaviour will hold us back. Only after purification will our love rush us into God’s loving gaze in untroubled heavenly joy.
We, who are baptized, both the living and the dead, are united in one family, in one communion. So we pray for each other — we ask the saints to intercede for us and in turn we intercede for our dead. Our example is St Thomas More who wrote to his daughter Meg on the night before his execution: “Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me, and I shall for you, and for all your friends, that we may merrily meet in heaven.”
All Saints is the day we praise God for his miracles of grace in the lives of each and every saint. All Souls is the day we remember and pray for our departed family and friends.