My father died in 2007. Where did his soul go? According to our faith and the Bible, we have three options: heaven, hell, or purgatory. We can answer the question by process of elimination:
1) We don’t believe he went to hell because we don’t know the state of his soul at the time of death. Dad came back to Jesus three years before he died so we hope he died in God’s grace and friendship. And no matter who the person is or what the situation, we never assume anyone goes to hell because of hope in God’s mercy, that can find a way to touch the soul even at the moment of death. Even though Jesus said many choose to go to hell, we never assume, in individual cases, that anyone goes to hell.
2) We also don’t assume my father went directly to heaven because heaven is for those who are completely united to God.
3) This leaves us with purgatory, which is for those who die in friendship with God but still have wounds in the relationship. Therefore we assume that my father, like almost everyone else, went to purgatory. This might be hard for some of us to hear because we want our loved ones to be happy, so we want to say they’re in heaven, in a “better place.” But actually this is good news: heaven is so good that we need preparation to go there. If people were to go there immediately, it would be because heaven is only mildly good—more on that later.
I didn’t plan on preaching about purgatory originally but a number of people asked me about it, so I prayed about it and saw a perfect example of it in today’s Gospel. The parable is often referred to as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but it’s actually more accurately called The Parable of the Two Brothers and the Good Father (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, 202), because it’s about both brothers and the goodness of the father. When the younger brother asks for his father’s inheritance, in Jewish culture, he’s basically saying to his father, “You’re as good as dead, and I don’t care. I want what’s mine, give it to me, because I’m leaving” (Fr. Robert Spitzer, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life, 138). That’s a mortal sin, and his relationship with his father is broken. When he leaves his father’s home he loses everything and his separation and destitution is a kind of hell. When he repents, he then returns home, apologizes to his father, and his relationship is restored, and there is a celebration which is symbolic of heaven.
What about the older brother? He chooses to stay outside the house and doesn’t enter into the celebration because, even though he has a relationship with the father, it’s not perfect: he follows the father’s commands but hasn’t embraced them totally. Pope Emeritus Benedict says that the older brother obeyed and stayed at home but secretly dreamed of leaving home and living like the younger son (208-9). He doesn’t realize how good it is to live with the father. So, until his heart is purified, until he gets rid of his jealousy and bitterness towards his brother and starts seeing reality the way the father does, he cannot enter into the celebration. This is similar to what purgatory is.
Go back to the image we used two weeks ago: when that person we love has been away for 40 years, it would be heaven to be with that person again. But now we should add that, because we’re sinful, that happiness wouldn’t last forever. Imagine that the two people separated were husband and wife. They love each other with all their hearts but, a year after their reunion, they would start getting on each other’s nerves: The wife would say, “So… after 40 years, you still leave the toilet seat up, huh? After 40 years, you never learned to help with the dishes?” And the husband would say, “And your nagging is just as good as when I left.” “Well, maybe you should go back to that country and we should write letters again.”
If a meteorite hit this church right now and wiped us all out at the same time and we all went to heaven, you know what would happen? We’d bring all our faults and sins to heaven. There would be lying, gossiping, swearing, lust, etc. That would not be heaven! When we celebrate the heavenly Mass, some people would complain that it’s too long, a few people might even sleep, people wouldn’t sing, people might ignore each other and leave Mass early. Why? Because our hearts haven’t changed and these are the hearts we’d bring to heaven! That wouldn’t be heaven.
We tend to think that heaven is what happens on the outside—that’s partially true. It would give us great happiness if we went to a place like the one St. John Bosco dreamed of, with crystal water and trees made of gold and precious stones. But what really made that place happy was that the people were holy.
I hope this makes sense. When our loved ones pass away, if we think they’re going straight to heaven, that’s because we’re assuming that heaven is only perfect on the outside—that’s not heaven, and the happiness wouldn’t last there. To have complete happiness, we must also have happiness on the inside, and everyone, except for bona fide saints, need to purify their hearts before they enter.
Here are two practical applications of this:
1) Pray for the dead. One reason we celebrate funerals is to offer Mass for the purification of those who have died. If we look at the inside of the bulletin, we see that Masses are sometimes offered up for the dead. One thing we can do as Catholics is, by our prayers, good works and sacrifices, help those who have died to be purified of their sins. We don’t know how long people stay in purgatory, but it’s as long as is necessary. Once a soul enters purgatory, they will eventually go to heaven.
2) Jeff Cavins rightly says we are either purified while here on earth or after we die in purgatory; either we do it the short way or the long way (15 Things to Do in the Midst of Suffering, Track 6, 4:28). The point of our time on earth is to respond to God’s love and grow in our relationship with Him.
Remember the movie Field of Dreams? It’s about an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella who hears a mysterious voice in his field saying, “If you build it, he was come.” He then sees an image of a baseball diamond in his corn field, and feels compelled to knock down the corn stalks and build a baseball diamond. The voice later tells him, “Ease his pain,” and “Go the distance.” Ray later reveals to a man named Terrance that he had a bad relationship with his father. Because his father never made it as a baseball player he put pressure on his son to live out his dream. Ray resented it, and when fourteen, refused to play catch with his father. He says, “when I was seventeen, we had a big fight, I packed my things, said something awful, and left. After a while I wanted to come home, but I didn’t know how. I made it back for the funeral.” The awful thing he said was that he could never respect a man who’s hero was a criminal. Terence says, “You knew [his hero] wasn’t a criminal.” Ray nods. “Then why’d you say it?” “ I was seventeen.” “So this is your penance.”
Throughout the movie, baseball players who had been dead for decades come back to play on Ray’s diamond, and, at the end of the movie, the last player to come back is Ray’s father. Ray now has a chance to introduce his father to his wife and daughter, whom he had never met. Ray then talks alone with his father, they shake hands, and, just as his father’s about to leave, Ray asks, “Hey, Dad, you want to have a catch.” His dad turns around and says, “I’d like that.”
We’re ultimately here to reconcile to our heavenly Father, through Jesus. The fastest way to do it is to do His will, be holy, and become a saint.
The one thing that has dominated the themes of hell, heaven and purgatory is the father’s love for us. As in today’s Gospel, the Father is always waiting for us to come home, looking for us on the horizon, and He’s even sent His first-born son, our oldest brother, to bring us home. For those of us who are already home, but refuse to go in the house and celebrate, He comes out and pleads with us, “Son [Daughter], you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Lk 15:31).
Hell is that relationship broken, heaven is that relationship fulfilled, and purgatory is healing that relationship.