“Today my sermon will be about Purgatory …” said Father Ignatius to the congregation on Sunday, “but let me first explain why I chose this subject to talk about …
“As you know, I teach the Catechism class at our local school every Friday … and I don’t mind confessing that those children frighten me …
“They have that innocence which only people of their age have … and they don’t mind asking you any kind of question no matter how difficult it is to answer.
“This is what they asked me last week ... I have it written down on this piece of paper …”
The priest unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket and began to read.
“Ah … here’s the first thing they asked me …
“Jesus told us about Heaven and hell … but He never mentioned Purgatory … how do we know it really exists?
“What does Purgatory look like? Does it have a fire like hell? Is it hot or cold there? Or is it perhaps just warm so you feel uncomfortable but you don’t burn?
“Does it have devils looking after all the inmates; like in hell … or are they a little kinder perhaps?
“How long do we stay in Purgatory? Is it one day for every sin we have … or is it a week or more for every sin?
“Are we in pain when in Purgatory? Like the fire in hell?
“When we pray for people in Purgatory, how many days off do they get? Is it one Hail Mary and they have one day less there; or how does it work?”
Father Ignatius folded the piece of paper and put it in his pocket.
“Well …” he said, “how do you answer questions like these? After all, I’m only a priest not an Einstein!”
The congregation laughed.
“They are all valid questions which may have crossed our minds too at some time or other; if we do think about Purgatory that is … but then we dismissed them into our pending tray in our head. Our let’s not think about it right now tray …”
He paused for a while.
“Let me explain the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding Purgatory …” he continued.
“Our teaching is based on Revelations 21:27 where it says nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in Heaven.
“Given that very few of us will die with no sins whatsoever on our conscience, the Church teaches that there must exist a place, or a state of being, or a state of purification, where we are cleansed of our sins and we can enter Heaven. This place, or state of being, is known as Purgatory.
“Jesus did describe Heaven at one time as a mansion with many rooms … so it follows, perhaps, that in our imagination we visualize Purgatory as a physical place too …
“The pertinent point, however, is that the Church teaches that there is a stage where souls destined for Heaven undergo a period of purification.
“As you well know, this belief has given rise to a lot of criticism of the Catholic Church over the years. Criticism and ridicule even …
“Some have suggested that Purgatory is a Catholic invention … a way of raising money for the Church by encouraging the faithful to pay for prayers and Masses for the souls of loved ones who are in Purgatory.
“Others have said that once a person is dead their destination is in the hands of God … and it cannot be bought or influenced by prayers or money from the living on this side of the divide.
“The fact remains, however, that the existence of Purgatory is one of our fundamental beliefs as Catholics. And as Catholics we cannot pick and choose what we believe in … we have to follow what our Church teaches, do we not?”
He stopped for a while, sensing that, like the children in his Catechism class, his congregation was now eager for answers to the many questions posed.
“Of course …” Father Ignatius continued, “I cannot answer all the questions asked by my pupils.
“I cannot tell you whether it is hot or cold in Purgatory, whether there are guards or wardens there checking on the inmates, or how long we have to stay there until our sins are cleansed and forgiven …
“I suspect that Purgatory is a state in which we find ourselves in, rather than a place as such … but this is pure speculation on my part.
“We can scratch our heads and fathom and think as long as we want … at the end of the day it is a matter of personal conscience what we believe. It is a matter of Faith.
“Some of you, no doubt, will choose to believe that Purgatory does not exist … and that our sins when we die are somehow …”
He waved his hand in the air.
“… dissipated … vanished … forgiven …”
He stopped again.
“As for praying for the souls in Purgatory and offering Masses for them,” he said, “… the way I see it … it is like putting in a good word on behalf of a relative or friend.
“How many of us applying for jobs, or applying to join a club or an institution, ask a friend to act as a referee?
“When we pray … we’re doing the same thing. We are putting in a good word on behalf of a loved one … we are acting as their referee …
“When someone is ill … or in some difficulty … we pray for them … we ask God to help them, to show them mercy and compassion … and often, I have seen it happen, God does answer our prayers.
“Jesus did, after all, teach us to ask our Father in Heaven … did He not?
“In the same way, when we pray for the souls in Purgatory we’re asking God to have mercy on them and to hasten their entry into Heaven … it’s as simple as that.
“Whether God is influenced by such prayers, as our critics would hasten to say … is another matter which we can debate for ever.
“At the end of the day it all boils down to a matter of belief.”
Father Ignatius stopped once again to punctuate his sermon.
“As your priest,” he continued gently in a calm and soothing voice, “I have always tried to be honest with you when asked about matters of Faith. I tell you what the Church teaches and … as best I can … help you in making your decisions on what to believe …
“Leaving aside the question of Purgatory for a moment …
“What is more important here is our relationship with God, our Creator, and our Father in Heaven.
“As humans we tend to envisage God with our limited human understanding.
“We measure Him by our own human yardstick and try to work out His thinking and His strategies and plans …
“This is wrong. He is God … and we are not. It’s as simple as that.
“It is not up to us to work out who will and who will not enter Heaven; and whether they go there via a direct route or through a temporary stay or detour in Purgatory or wherever.
“Let God be God … and let man be man. And let us have the humility to obey Him and trust Him to do the right thing!”