by Sr. Fidelity Grace, SV and Sr. Marie Veritas, SV
“Death is the most important act of earthly existence. All life is made to explode, to go farther, to merge with life, with God.” – Robert Cardinal Sarah
In His infinite mercy, Jesus turned death upside down and made it the path to life. At the very moment of death — when our souls separate from our bodies — we will each receive our particular, unique judgment from God. Our whole life is a preparation for this moment. Now, we will not be arbitrarily assigned a passing or failing grade by a harsh master; we will receive from our merciful Savior Himself the destiny we choose. And we will not stand before Christ with our report cards and résumés and trophies in tow. As St. John of the Cross put it simply: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on our love.”
Jesus the gentleman: Philosopher Edward Feser describes judgement as being like wet clay in a furnace: a moment that locks into place our basic posture — either toward God, or not. Even though He constantly works at every turn for our good, and always gives each soul enough grace for salvation, Jesus is a gentleman. In His mercy and justice, He will not force heaven upon us if we don’t want it. How we’ve let ourselves be formed in love, and what or whom we seek at the moment of our death, will be, in itself, our judgement. Immediately after death, the soul goes either to heaven, hell, or purgatory.
“It is not death that will come to fetch me; it is the good God.” – St. Thérèse of Liseux
Eternal bliss: Jesus died and rose to make heaven possible for us who were stuck in sin; that’s why He came. To arrive in heaven is to be submerged in the unending embrace and praise of the Infinite Love who made us. It is to have all life’s thirsts quenched, questions answered, and desires fulfilled. For when we see God as He is — Father, Son, and Spirit unveiled — we come to know ourselves as we truly are, as He sees us.
Made for you: While perpetually new and exciting, heaven is ever familiar. There we can authentically say, with a smile as wide as the horizon, “I belong here. I was made for this.” It is a true reunion with God’s earthly family. Free from any trace of rivalry or contention, all those in heaven are saints, transformed by glory to the degree that they loved God on earth.
C.S. Lewis masterfully imagines it: “Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you, and you alone, because you were made for it … stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.”
“Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” -St. Thomas More
It doesn’t end there: At the end of time, when Christ comes again, the bodies of all the dead will rise (some to eternal life, and some to eternal death), and the entire cosmos will be transformed. But we will not morph into angels or “reincarnate” as new personalities. Instead, our own body and soul will be united again. Those who rise to life will become like the Risen Christ – still themselves, but glorified and perfected! (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #988-1004) Indeed, “we look forward to the resurrection of the dead…” (Nicene Creed). It’s the happiness we’re made for.
“Our aim must be the infinite and not the finite … We have always been expected in Heaven.” – Blessed Carlo Acutis
The reality of hell: Today, the devil is often lumped into the same category as mermaids and fairies — the realm of make-believe. But Scripture and Christian tradition are clear that Satan, an angel created good by God, definitively chose against God and now dwells with his minions in the place of perpetual death known as hell. Christ Himself often referred to Gehenna (a garbage dump where fires continually burned) as an image of hell — the destiny of those who ultimately choose against love. “For I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, a stranger and you gave Me no welcome, naked and you gave Me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for Me…what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for Me…. truly I say to you, I do not know you” (Mt 25: 42-45; Mt 25:12).
“To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1033)
Like a fish out of water: A fish out of water isn’t merely uncomfortable; it is cut off from its very life-source. Likewise, hell is complete separation from the love of God. Hell’s greatest pain is isolation from the Creator and all other creatures — from the communion for which we were made. It is a place devoid of truth, goodness, and beauty; a realm of chaos and unspeakable agony. St. Ignatius of Loyola once said, “Imagine the worst you can, and then say, ‘All this is nothing compared to hell.’” It is an everlasting abode of darkness, death, and fire.
The choice against God: God desires no one’s eternal unhappiness, let alone a person’s destruction or non-existence. He desires our free return to His love. In our final hour, however, if we refuse to receive His mercy, or refuse to repent of any mortal sins, then we ultimately refuse to live with God. To be damned to hell is to have knowingly said “no” to the arms that were always open to embrace us and the voice that had always called our name.
“O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.” -The Fatima Prayer
“As we enter heaven, we will see them, so many of them, coming towards us and thanking us. We will ask who they are, and they will say, ‘A poor soul whom you prayed for in purgatory.” – Fulton Sheen
Preparation for heaven: Now, if the door of a heart is open even a sliver to God, God’s mercy will welcome him. Even deathbed converts, like the good thief on Calvary, have a place in paradise. But for one still attached to less serious sins at the time of death, the dazzling brilliance of heaven would be unbearable. The God who is Mercy thus gives us an intermediate state of preparation for heaven. Purgatory is not a punishment. Like the fire that refines silver or the surgery that fixes a heart problem, purgatory cleanses souls of everything that is not of God. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains, “Before [Christ’s] gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves” (Spe Salvi, #47).
Bittersweet longing: A soul’s greatest longing is to be with God in heaven. St. Catherine of Genoa tells us that the souls in purgatory suffer deeply from the awareness that “… they have deliberately gone against His great goodness.” The more they are attached to sin, the more it will hurt to remove it. However, as each impediment to love is burned away, the joy of the souls in purgatory increases. Everyone who goes to purgatory eventually goes to heaven.
“Let us empty purgatory with our prayers.” -St. Padre Pio
5 things you might not know about purgatory
1. Can we help the souls in purgatory? Yes! Souls in purgatory really are “poor” because they can do nothing to speed up their purification; they completely depend on the prayers and sacrifices of those on earth and the saints in heaven. St. John Vianney had a vision in which he heard souls cry out: “Tell our loved ones, tell our children, tell all our relatives … We throw ourselves at their feet to implore the help of their prayers!”
2. Is praying for the dead in the Bible? Yes! We read of Judas Maccabeus having temple offerings made on behalf of his brothers, who were guilty of wrongdoing before they died (cf. 2 Macc 12:38-45). This conviction has been part of Christian practice for centuries.
3. How can I help the poor souls? Offering Mass, the rosary, fasting, and any other prayers and sacrifices made on their behalf are powerful ways of helping our departed relatives and friends reach heaven more quickly. The Lord promised St. Gertrude the release of many souls from purgatory through this prayer: Eternal Father, I offer You the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal Church, for those in my own home, and in my family. Amen.
4. Does the Blessed Mother help the poor souls? Many saints have testified to Mary’s intercession. St. Faustina had a vision in which her guardian angel took her to purgatory. She says, “I saw Our Lady visiting the souls in purgatory. The souls call her ‘The Star of the Sea.’ She brings them refreshment.”
5. Can the souls in purgatory help us? Many saints have testified, from experience, to the tremendous power of the poor souls’ prayers for us. Although it is not an official teaching of the Church, it is supported by some Doctors of the Church, such as St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Alphonsus Ligouri. “If it were but known how great is the power of the good souls in purgatory with the heart of God, and if we knew all the graces we can obtain through their intercession, they would not be so much forgotten.” – St. John Vianney
Originally published in IMPRINT Fall 2020