Finally we are nearing the final answer to this question. In the previous two articles, we have explored some of the teachings of the Catholic Church on suffering and Purgatory, and now it is time for me to posit what I believe the answer to this question to be. Now, remember, I am by no means the official voice of the Church, but I will try and use Her teachings, as given by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit, to back up my argument.
To get started, I want to first make one important distinction. Just because God can do something does not mean He will. It is important to keep in mind that there is a huge difference between the possibility for someone to do something and the probability that they will. For instance, I can go and punch my friend in the face; however, that doesn’t mean I will, or even that I should. Let’s take a look at this passage from the book of the Prophet Daniel:
King Nebuchadnezzar said: ‘Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that you will not serve my god, or worship the golden statue that I set up? Be ready now to fall down and worship the statue I had made, whenever you hear the sound of the trumpet, flute, lyre, harp, psaltery, bagpipe, and all the other musical instruments; otherwise, you shall be instantly cast into the white-hot furnace; and who is the God who can deliver you out of my hands?’ Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the white-hot furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it know to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:14-20)
And, another great passage, albeit a very long passage, is the martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother in the book of 2 Maccabees, chapter 7. Since the verse is so long, I am going to very briefly outline what occurred. During the time of the Hellenization of Jewish Culture, that is, while the Jews were under Greek control, the Greeks tried to enforce their pagan beliefs on the Jews. Many Jews did comply and some did not, such as the seven brothers, their mother, and the old man Eleazar (you can read of his martyrdom in the final section of Chapter 6). However, to refuse to offer any sort of oblation or sacrifice to the pagan gods resulted in your death. The Greeks, in this story, tried to force seven young men and their mother to eat unclean meat (pork), which was prohibited under Judaic Law. Rather than submit and profane God and his Laws, these men each and every time refused, despite the intense torture: “It happened that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh” (2 Maccabees 7:1). Even after watching each of their brothers killed in the most inhumane way:
The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and caldrons be heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in the pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly. (2 Maccabees 7:3-5)
Then, after all of her sons had just been brutally martyred, this is what is said of their mother:
The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their fathers. Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, ‘I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of His laws…’ Last of all the mother died, after her sons. (2 Maccabees 7:20-23, 41)
I strongly encourage all of you to read the rest of the passages of these brave men and that brave mother, because they are wonderful passages in Sacred Scripture that really exemplify and call for a total and unreserved trust in God. Notice the response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to King Nebuchadnezzar: “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the white-hot furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.” These three brave souls had a total trust in God, recognizing that He did, indeed, have the power to save them; otherwise, they would not have handed themselves over. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all recognized the power that their God possessed, realizing that He is more powerful than both life and death, and especially more powerful than king Nebuchadnezzar. However, while they recognized that God did indeed have the power to save them from the furnace, the also realized that God might not, because they knew that the LORD owed them nothing, and that is why they said, “and even if He will not, know, O king…” It turns out that God, in His loving mercy, did actually save the three men from the fires of the furnace, for “the poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them,” (Psalm 34: 6-7) and, “When the righteous cry out for help, the LORD hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles.” (Psalm 34: 17) And with the courageous souls of the seven sons and their mother, we see that God does not always save us from the suffering that comes our way, but He always provides for us new life eternal. For, while the figures in both stories completely and radically trusted in the Lord, they received drastically different results. This isn’t to say that God loved the seven brothers and the one mother any less than He loved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, because He loved them all deeply and unconditionally; and, it isn’t even to say that one group trusted in the Lord any less than the other, because both completely trusted in Him. What it is to say, though, is that both recognized that the suffering, whatever it was and however severe it would be, was worth enduring for the sake of God.
In much the same way, the souls in Purgatory say, “Our God, whom we serve, can save us from the suffering of Purgatory with a single Mass! But even if He will not, we will love Him forever!” These holy souls recognize that God could simply will them out of Purgatory in a single instant, just as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the 8 souls from the book of Maccabees believed that God could very well deliver them; and while the Mass certainly has the power to free every single soul in Purgatory in a single instant, by the merits of Jesus Christ on the most holy cross, that doesn’t mean that God will allow that. Let us go back to the first article on suffering. We learned that suffering, as a result of sin, is now a necessary part of our human nature in its fallen state; and, as Saint Paul said, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church.” (1 Corinthians 1:24) Since suffering is necessary for our salvation, sanctified by the suffering of Christ, we must suffer in order to enter Heaven. As we said in the article on Purgatory, we can either do that suffering here on earth, or after death in Purgatory, but one way or another, we must embrace our suffering for the sake of Christ. When you read the lives of the saints, you often read about a lot of suffering. Saint Francis, Saint Gertrude, Saint Pio of Pietreclina, and the list goes on and on. These saints are saints because they offered their suffering up to Christ and united it to Him out of love for Him. And this is the key, brothers and sisters. Our suffering is not merely some punishment for our sins. Yes, it is a consequence of original sin and we must endure it because of our sins, but when we unite our suffering to Christ it is no longer about consequences, it is about love. When discussing this particular question with one of my older sisters, this is what she had to say:
An image that I love of Purgatory is that it’s the fire of the Sacred Heart. Love purifies, but sometimes it hurts. So, for as long as they need to be in that fire, they will be, until the silver smith can see his reflection in the product.
Charity is another name for Love. Why does St. Paul say that the greatest of these, Faith, Hope, and Love, is Love? Well, I can see two major reasons. The first is that Love endures even after death. We have faith because there are some things that are just not known to us, the mysteries of God for instance; we need faith to accept them, because some things are just not knowable through our human reason alone, but once we enter into Heaven, we know definitively God in the fullest, for we see Him in the Beatific Vision. We have hope because we do not yet know our eternal destiny, we have hope in the Salvation brought to us by Christ on the Cross, but when we enter Heaven that hope has been fulfilled and is no longer necessary. When we love however, that remains even after death in Heaven. Love is always with us, after all, that is what we will be doing for the rest of eternity in Heaven, Loving God and being Loved by Him. The second reason is this. Our Faith comes from God, our Hope rests in God, but God IS Love. Love has both a name and a face, the name is the Most High Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the Incarnation of God the Son for our Salvation. So, we lift high the Cross, the love of God out-poured. And since our suffering, when we offer it up and unite it to Christ (I cannot emphasize this enough), becomes an act of pure, unrestrained love for God. It is in our suffering that we learn to love God as He has loved us, and it for this reason that it is absolutely necessary that we suffer, because it edifies us and prepares us for the love and the joys of Heaven, because that’s all Heaven is: A perfect, grace-filled communion of love between us and God. However, as temporal beings, having a physical body, we are very much ingrained into the world and often have trouble detaching completely, which is why many of us do, and probably will, go to Purgatory first. The holy souls in Purgatory, though, free from their fleshly bonds, are able to embrace and offer their suffering up totally and most perfectly.
So, if I were to sum up my final answer in a clear and concise manner, I would do so with four key points:
- Just because God can do something does not mean God will do something.
- Suffering is a necessary consequence for our fallen nature, and it is in suffering that we, as Saint Peter says, are freed from the sin that binds us. “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of time in the flesh, no longer by human passions but, by the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1-2)
- Suffering prepares us for Heaven by teaching us how to love God as He has loved us, by willingly embracing our suffering for the other. Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sake, and so we too suffer and die to ourselves for His sake.
- Since suffering is both necessary and teaches us to love God perfectly, if we fail to do that here on earth, Purgatory then becomes necessary for us and our entrance into Heaven. Since the souls in Purgatory are still attached to some sort of sin, they must, for their own edification, endure the time in Purgatory, where they always and perfectly offer up their suffering and unite it to Christ.
“But by the prayers of the Holy Church, and by the salvific sacrifice, and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided, that the Lord might deal more mercifully with them than their sins would deserve. The whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers: that it prays for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their own place in the sacrifice itself; and the sacrifice is offered also in memory of them, on their behalf. If, then, works of mercy are celebrated for the sake of those who are being remembered, who would hesitate to recommend them, on whose behalf prayers to God are not offered in vain? It is not at all to be doubted that such prayers are of profit to the dead; but for such of them as lived before their death in a way that makes it possible for these things to be useful to them after death.” – St. Augustine
For more sayings of the saints on the souls in Purgatory, go here: Quotes from the Saints on the Souls in Purgatory