Following yesterday's celebration of the Saints in Heaven, the Church Triumphant, today we are encouraged to remember the Church Penitent, the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
Purgatory is one of Our Lord's greatest gifts to humanity. In His mercy, he recognises that for the most part, people are well-intentioned but subject to weakness and temptation, and that sin is part of our nature. As a consequence, many leave this life wanting to be with God, but still bearing some imperfections, shame or attachment to the things of this world, due to the long-term effects of sin. When we do wrong, we may be sorry for it, but something remains, be it a guilty memory, an effect that we have had on others, or just that a 'taboo' has, for us, been broken, and will affect in some way how we think or behave thereafter. When we die, these hidden marks are exposed by God (the Judgement part of the four last things), and we feel a sense of shame and embarassment, and of not being quite worthy to join Our Lord in Heaven. Personally, I am always very taken by the words of the Dies Irae:-
Ingemisco, tanquam reus,
Culpa rubet vultus meus.
Roughly translated as 'I groan like someone found out, and blush at my fault': we get the sense of a soul going through a moment of 'D'oh, why did I do that?' At this moment, Our Lord is generous and merciful and gives the soul the space to work through these feelings and overcome them - this is Purgatory, a place of suffering (the pain of loss - God says, 'Not yet: you will have to wait before you can be with me', and also pain of sense - the embarassment of having our sins laid bare), but suffering that will end. For some, this will be a relatively quick and easy process, for others harder and more protracted, depending on the disposition of their souls.
The wonderful thing is that we can do something to help souls get through Purgatory: we can pray on their behalf, and we can apply the fruits of our good works to them by obtaining indulgences for them. The Church particularly encourages this practice as part of today's feast.
Sadly the practice of praying for the Holy Souls has gone out of fashion over the years - we see this in the way that funerals very often seem to focus on looking backward and remembering the past life of the deceased, rather than thinking of the future and where we want them to go next, and what we can do to help them.
Please remamber the Holy Souls today and do something practical to help them. Hopefully, by this evening many more will no longer be suffering, and will be enjoying paradise.
Requiem aeternum dona eis, Domine,
Et lux perpetual lueat eis;
Requiescant in pace.