Few things are more opaque to folks of contemporary sensibility than the longstanding Catholic practice of praying for the “poor souls” in Purgatory. I can easily recall my Mom encouraging me to “offer up” my suffering on their behalf—a counsel that she often dispensed to put the kibosh on my whining. I admit, I never quite understood the efficacy of “offering it up” back then, but I did understand that Mom was deferring my complaints to the adjudication of a higher power. And no favorable decisions ever seemed to return from that court of appeal.
The practice of interceding for the poor souls remained obscure because it supposed a deeper interweaving of human destinies than I had either the vision or courage to acknowledge. Most understand the need for individual purification, the implacable enmity between the fire of God’s holiness and the dross of pettiness and egoism. But how could those on earth meaningfully interpose themselves at this most personal of moments? How could the Church’s prayers wrest even one egoistic reflex from the inner sanctuary of a “poor soul”?
Pope Benedict’s thoughts on this matter are typically penetrating. He observes that Christ’s resurrection has made us—in a mode as real as Christ’s Eucharistic presence—a single body. Each member draws its life from the whole organism, just as the whole lives from its parts. For this reason, the health of each member touches upon the health of the others. No action ever affects simply ourselves:
And how can a third party enter into that most highly personal process of encounter with Christ, where the “I” is transformed in the flame of his closeness? Is not this an event which so concerns the individual that all replacement or substitution must be ruled out? … Yet the being of man is not a closed monad. It is related to others by love or hate, and in these ways has its colonies within them. My own being is present in others as guilt or grace. We are not just ourselves; or, more correctly, we are ourselves only as being in others, with others and through others. Whether others curse us or bless us, forgive us and turn our guilt into love—this is part of our destiny. The fact that the saints will judge means that encounter with Christ is encounter with his whole body. I come face to face with my own guilt vis-à-vis the suffering members of that body as well as with the forgiving love which the body derives from Christ its Head.
At first this doctrine is too terrifying to contemplate. It means that he quality of our own love shapes the love of all those around us. And, as St. Augustine pointed out, there are ultimately only two cities, each defined by an eternal destiny and an object of love. Each of our actions, therefore, helps solidify citizenship—both ours and our fellow travelers’—in either the City of God or the City of Man.
The practice of praying for the “poor souls” supposes a vision of human interconnectedness that we would often rather not consider. Indeed, we have been trained by the human sciences not to consider them. For the connections run much deeper than the surface causalities treated by public health, law, or economics can trace.
Such prayer means the Western “colonialism” that we presently bewail is only the political manifestation of a universal law: we all have our “colonies” in our neighbors. It means that the “right to privacy” is only a legal fiction—indeed, a fiction largely transparent even at the legal level. It means that actions between “consenting adults” always shape the lives of the unconsenting. It means that we will render an account of how we spend “our” income before the whole Christ—many of whom have been sorely tempted by poverty. Eternity, in other words, passes through the bedroom and the monthly budget.
In final analysis, though, and despite the heaviness of the foregoing considerations, the intimate linkage of souls is also good news. For it means that no loving act—no matter how hidden—is ever lost. No suffering is ever consigned to emptiness if it is accepted from the Lord’s hand. The prisoner, the widow, the shut-in and the hermit are never truly alone. Our loved ones in purgatory never lie beyond the sway of our forgiveness. And—the best news of all—we will not encounter in heaven a grudging mob. We will encounter instead the body of Christ, which derives its “forgiving love from Christ its Head.”
This is good news.