227. All Souls: Do You Need to Be Purged of a Faulty Understanding of Purgatory?

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Today is the Feast of All Souls. It’s distinguished from the feast of “All Saints” by the fact that most of us do not die as saints and are still in need of purification. Protestant reformers used the image of a dung-heap covered by white snow to convey their understanding of what sin has done to us and how Christ saves us. If that’s an accurate image, the idea of purgatory makes no sense: once you say “yes” to Jesus, you’re “covered.”

The Catholic vision is almost the converse: we are white snow that’s been covered by dung through sin, and, as we give our “yes” to Jesus, he removes the dung. From this perspective, purification is a journey, and if that journey is not complete at death, it makes sense that it continues. Pope Benedict XVI offers these insights in helping us understand what awaits us in purgatory:

[I]n order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast . . . 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. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart, heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire.” But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. (Saved in Hope 46-47)

The Pope goes on to correct a common misunderstanding about “time” spent in purgatory: “It is clear that we cannot calculate the ‘duration’ of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world,” he says. “The transforming ‘moment’ of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning – it is the heart’s time, it is the time of ‘passage’ to communion with God in the Body of Christ” (Saved in Hope 47).

Notice our communion with God comes via the Body of Christ. On this Feast of All Souls, we mustn’t forget our bodies. Christ came not merely to “save souls” but to save our entire humanity – soul and body! Indeed, the hope that saves us, according to Saint Paul, is precisely the redemption of our bodies (see Rom 8:23-25). Hence, the “proper Christian thing,” as Benedict XVI wrote in a pre-papal essay, “is to speak not of the soul’s immortality, but of the resurrection of the complete human being [body and soul] and of that alone.”

Question: How do Pope Benedict XVI’s insights above reshape your understanding of purgatory and the feast of All Souls? Please share your comments on Facebook and Twitter.


For such a time as this have we been given Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. By taking us beyond the alternatives of prudish repression and damaging indulgence, the Theology of the Body opens the path to the redemption of sexuality and the real healing of our wounds. Learn more by watching my short film, The Cry of the HeartWatch the trailer below.

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