The Four Last Things - Part 3 - Purgatory
November 19, 2017
One of the most famous Christian works of art of all time is the scene in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel painted by the great artist Michelangelo (early 16th Century Italian painter and sculptor). That famous chapel is where the cardinals elect the Pope. Five million tourists to the Vatican view it each year. I have been fortunate itself to see it on a tour. If you can’t see it in person, I recommend jumping online to view it. It is a an artistic representation of what will happen to each one of us at our final judgment, when we come to the end of our earthly life. It shows some souls being saved, some being damned, and some on their way to purification (purgatory).
One of the interesting things about the painting is the depiction of Jesus Christ the Judge. He is much more imposing and masculine than the way he is presented in much of modern art. Michelangelo depicts him as someone who can inspire a holy fear, awe and respect – which is fitting for the all-holy Son of God. In the painting, the Blessed Virgin is looking away from Jesus, look toward those He has saved and as if to avert her glance from the misery of those who have chosen not to love Christ and thus who won’t be admitted into His heavenly Kingdom.
There is a real drama around the figures of Jesus and Mary – as some of the angels hover overhead, looking intently at the impending judgment. Some of them await the newcomers eagerly with the crown of martyrdom, as those who gave their life for Christ are about to ascend to Heaven. In one corner of the saved, two men hoping to ascend to Christ’s company grasp on to a Rosary, lowered down by a very powerful angel, as if to grab this as a lifeline cast out by those in a ship to someone drowning in the sea. They are clinging on to it for dear life. The saints, too, near Christ, look down at the dying below, or at Christ, with a pleading gesture, hoping for the saved to join them in Heaven.
It’s a very dramatic visual to remind us that the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints is important for our salvation. But at the same time, we depend not just on the court of heaven after we die. The Church teaches that, in God’s mercy, He lets the prayers of the Church militant (those Christians still alive on earth) to be part of the pleading to purify the souls of the dead so they may be part of the Communion of Saints.
We need both because it is very difficult to be completely pure and free from sin by the end of our earthly life. This, if we die without being in a state of deadly (mortal) sin, we will have to undergo a purification process to enable us to be counted among the Heavenly Communion of God and the saints. This is not a punishment, it is a gift and a grace. On the other hand, it might be quite painful for us – for a time, because we will know the full extent of our sins that must be purified. A very rough analogy is undergoing a medical treatment – say, chemotherapy. There is a lot that needs to be “zapped away” (cancer cells) so the body can become whole again. It may be very unpleasant. But we live in the hope that it will work to restore us to perfect health. The analogy is not perfect: we don’t know whether chemotherapy will work or not. We do know, with certainty, that those in purgatory will get to Heaven, after they have been fully purified. The process is always successful.
That’s why we pray for the dead: that the Lord may increase the bountiful outpouring of His mercy, so that they may be purified sooner. We assist them by prayers, penances and sacrifices offered for them. Because, even though they are visibly separated from us by death, they are still united to us through the Church. We are together, at Mass. As an act of love, we continue to pray for them. And ask them to pray for us.
For much more on purgatory, see the Catechism, §§1030-1032.