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Mystery of God's Justice and Mercy

by Fr. Joseph Minihan


This article discusses the condition of the holy souls in Purgatory, their detention and suffering and what we can do to help them.

Larger Work

The Homiletic and Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., October 1958

The Church's petition at Mass and public worship today is direct and simple: "Eternal rest give to them, 0 Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them." It is a prayer that God's indulgent mercy will somehow permit the rigorous demands of divine justice to be dispensed with. It is a prayer offered in hope that God will accept satisfaction from others on behalf of the souls in purgatory. It is a bold prayer asking for their liberation from prison, and that they be admitted to the rest and light of eternal day in heaven.


Of purgatory and the condition of the holy souls, Sacred Scripture and Christ's teaching in the gospels tell little, and nothing that is quite clear. So that we depend almost entirely on tradition and the Church's teaching authority for this belief. But it is Christ's teaching that reaches us through the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit; our faith on the point is quite sure.

Purgatory exists, and souls detained there are helped by the prayers of the faithful, but especially by the pleasing sacrifice of the altar (Council of Trent, Session XXV, in princ., Decree on Purgatory).

What the Pope and the bishops declared in the Council of Trent summarized teaching given in the council held at Florence about a hundred years earlier. This was given most solemnly as a dogmatic and infallible definition of the Church's teaching:

If those who are truly penitent depart from this life in the charity of God before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of repentance . . . their souls are cleansed by purgatorial sufferings after death.

Scriptural indications about purgatory are the religious offerings made by Judas Machabeus for sacrifice in the temple on behalf of his dead soldiers. The sacred writer comments: "A holy and wholesome thought it is to pray for the dead, for their guilt's undoing" (2 Machabees 12, 46, Knox translation). Jesus speaks of a sin that will not be forgiven "either in this world or in the world to come" (Matthew 12, 32). This implies that there are sins which are forgiven after this life is over.


Purgatory is a place of detention for those who "depart from this life in the charity of God," that is to say, in a state of grace, but without full atonement made for sins forgiven. Detention is the penalty for defaulting over satisfaction. Lack of humility or of true appreciative sorrow for sin may have caused this failure, and it constitutes a defilement, temporarily excluding even very holy souls from heaven.

When God's justice demands delay, sentence is humbly accepted without demur. But the disembodied soul yearns for God as not even the saints did on earth. The sense of loss occasioned by detention combines with increasing desire of union with God; therein lies the principal suffering of purgatory.

An important aspect in the soul's purgation is loneliness; without a body the state of the soul is unnatural. It exists in a twilight of reality, sustained by the Creator, but out of close contact with Him. The soul in purgatory is held incommunicado and thus tastes the folly of sinful self-sufficiency. It's a hard, late lesson for the soul to learn, bitter despite the certainty of heaven.

Cardinal Newman, in The Dream of Gerontius, poignantly expresses the encouragement given by an angel guardian to the soul left alone in purgatory:

Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.


Until God summons the soul there would seem to be no other contacts. Help from outside cannot come directly to the soul in the hands of the living God. Relief and deliverance depend on the divine will alone.

Here is a holy soul, alive with grace, confirmed forever as God's friend. Sacraments cannot reach him; even the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass will only shorten his time of detention by divine permission. The benefits that infallibly assist the just on earth are no longer his. All is in suffrage, by way of prayer. But the fervor and charity of the earthbound faithful certainly help.

The suffrages of the living, namely, the sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, alms-deeds and other works of piety . . . are profitable to departed souls for the relief of their sufferings (Council of Florence).

Indulgences also can usefully be offered with the Church's suffrage on behalf of named holy souls. And by the mercy of God and His justice they will not waste, but will assist the dead.

No need for us to waste opportunities in God's service with idle speculation and guesses about the requirements of God's justice and the measure of His mercy. You can best help the holy souls by determining with grace to live in such a way as to come directly to God at His call; where they are, I may be. I may need this prayer. Eternal rest give to them, 0 Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.

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