The Church uses November, the month of the holy souls and the conclusion of the liturgical year, as an extended reflection on the “last things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell. As Christians we must keep our eternal destiny ever before our eyes. Instead of depressing, frightening, or paralyzing us, it is through the lens of death that we come to understand the true meaning and beauty of life. Life takes on new meaning and urgency when we know that everything we do in this life is under the watchful eye of Jesus and that we will meet Him as Savior and Judge when our lives are finished.
As we contemplate eternal life, we are faced with many questions. What becomes of those who do not die in a state of mortal sin (deserving the punishments of hell) but still have unconfessed venial sins left on the soul at the moment of death? The Church has taught from ancient times that such individuals must undergo a final purification so that the stain of sin can be remitted and the soul might be properly prepared for the Kingdom of Heaven. This is necessary because in the presence of the face of God in Heaven nothing imperfect may be found. This purification – whether it is an instantaneous or prolonged experience – is given the theological name purgatory. This hope is only possible because of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church: All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.