When, at the hour of death, a man finds himself on the threshold of eternity, his thoughts turn naturally to God and his mind assumes a humble and reverent attitude in the sight of his Creator who is about to judge him according his divine law.
In ancient times, no sooner had the soul left this world, than the contact with God, indeed its appearance before the judgement seat, surrounded it in the eyes of the survivors with a kind of sacred atmosphere enveloping the corpse and the sepulchre itself. Human passions, anger, and revenge were arrested and disarmed by the sacred majesty of the tomb.
Those remaining ensured the inviolability of the sepulchre, and to refuse honourable burial to a culprit was, among the Greeks and the Romans, the worst punishment that could be inflicted on him, for his soul was believed in consequence to wander forever, lonely in space without finding rest.
The Romans, especially, loved to surround their dead with the memories of domestic life. Far from regarding sepulchres as places of evil augury, they buried their dead either in their own properties, or by the side of the great consular roads, which ran from the Eternal City like so many great arteries traversing the imperium. Here the ashes of the ancestors, were continually cared for by the affection of their descendants even covering them with roses and violets.
The Christian religion, instead of weakening this devotion of the ancients towards the departed, only purified and strengthened it, especially in virtue of the dogma of the Resurrection. Thus we see that from the days of the Apostles the faithful at Rome constructed their places of burial at the side of the great consular roads.
Their Mother the Church, instead of celebrating the usual parentalia of the pagans, came on certain fixed days to offer upon those tombs that which St Augustine beautifully described later as: the Sacrifice of our Redemption. The custom of offering the Mass in suffrage for the faithful departed was associated with the first beginnings of the Church. At the time of St Ignatius of Antioch and St Polycarp it was spoken of as a traditional usage, and when in later days the custom degenerated into an abuse, the authority of the Church was needed to control it and bring it within the proper limits. So, for instance, it was decreed that Holy Mass should only be celebrated on the tombs of the martyrs, and it was forbidden to celebrate the Mass for those among the faithful who had died in public sin. Lastly, in the fourth century, it was forbidden in Italy to celebrate funeral banquets on the tombs of the dead.
The Church, however, with her usual sublime economy preserved all that was innocent, true and inspired in the funeral rites of classic antiquity. She purified and spiritualised them, transfigured by the thought which gave a sense of joy and life to the Liturgy of the departed, the belief that they would rise once more like the risen Redeemer.
Prudentius mentions the flowers which used to be scattered on the tombs, and the libations of perfumes poured upon the sepulchres of the beloved dead. Tertullian speaks of the large sums spent by the Christians on the purchase of oriental perfumes for embalming the dead. A few years ago a body was found near the crypt of St Sebastian ad Catacumbas, entirely covered with a thick coating of balsam which still preserved its fragrance when burnt.
The barbarian invasion of Italy caused some changes to be made in this Liturgy of the dead. The approach to the extra-mural cemeteries having become too dangerous owing to the raids of the enemy, the catacombs ceased to be used as places of burial, and it became the custom to inter the dead within the city, in a church, or in the narthex. In consequence of this the traditional funeral banquets with the libations of perfume and scattering of flowers were no longer possible, if indeed they had not already ceased before that time. Devotion to the dead no longer found expression in the ancient familiar and domestic rites, but was confined within the clearlymarked limits of sacred Liturgy. At last, this came to mean simply the burial within a hallowed place and the offering of the eucharistic Sacrifice on the day of deposition, on the seventh, on the thirtieth day, and on the anniversary.
Another rite must also be mentioned which dates from the Middle Ages. The Bishop had to visit the various parishes within his jurisdiction, and among the objects of this visitation we find mentioned in the first place the absolving of the dead. This refers to a non-sacramental absolution from the ecclesiastical censures (excommunication, suspension) which the departed may have incurred during their lifetime, and on account of which they might be deprived in the next world of the suffrages of the faithful. The Bishop who has inflicted the penalty can also recall it, and, therefore, in his pastoral visitation he grants per modum suffragii to his former sheep now passed into eternity a full indulgence for their sins. These absolutions were already regarded as being of traditional use in the eleventh century, and are noted in the various Ordines of that period.
In order to show examples of this rule of the Church concerning absolutions or indulgences for the dead it is useful to recall here the stories told by St Gregory the Great concerning the Patriarch of the West, St Benedict.
A certain monk had died whilst under the censure of the great Abbot of Monte Cassino, and after his burial, it was found that the earth repeatedly cast forth the corpse. The relatives had recourse to St Benedict, and he, in token of pardon, had a small particle of the sacred Host laid with great reverence on the dead body.
On another occasion St Benedict had merely threatened some scandal-mongering nuns with excommunication. These women died and were buried in a church, but each time that the deacon, after the Gospel, warned the catechumens and penitents to depart, according to the custom of the age, the nuns were seen to leave their tombs and to go out of the sacred building. The fact was recounted to St Benedict, who raised his censure and in token of this reconciliation caused a Mass to be offered for their souls. From that day the gossiping nuns found peace at last, and no longer left the church during the holy Sacrifice.
In the eighth century we find among the customs of the monastery of Fulda that of celebrating each month a commemoration of the faithful departed. To pass from a monthly celebration to an annual one was easy, and thus we find that towards the tenth century, especially in Benedictine monasteries, the custom prevailed of commemorating every year the benefactors and friends of the house who had been taken from this world.
St Odilo, Abbot of Cluny, is generally recognized as having been responsible for the universal adoption of this custom, already in use in many churches. We know the rule issued by him. It dates from 998, but only concerns those religious houses which were dependent on Cluny and which numbered more than a hundred, being scattered through France, Spain, and Italy. In that document the saintly Abbot commanded that on November 1, after solemn vespers, (the evening) the bells should toll, and the monks should chant the Office of the dead. On the following day all the priests were to offer the holy Sacrifice to God for the repose of the souls departed. This custom was soon imitated, at first by the various Benedictine monasteries, until at last it became a universal rite of the Latin Church.
Devotion to the suffering souls in Purgatory has developed considerably during the last centuries, as indeed may be said of Catholic piety in general. The Church is like a flourishing tree, which, as it continues to grow and to throw out branches, is covered with a profusion of leaves and flowers.
So it came about during the recent terrible war, when every town, not to say every family, mourned its dead, that Benedict XV extended to the entire Catholic Church a privilege granted by Benedict XIV centuries ago to the States which were at that time under the crown of Spain. This was the permission for every priest to celebrate three Masses for the faithful departed on November 2. It was not only the thought of the “useless slaughter” as he termed the war which prompted Benedict XV to grant this privilege.
Pope Benedict XV, accustomed to the liturgical usage of Spain where he had spent some time in the suite of the Papal Nuncio, the late Cardinal Rampolla del Tindaro, granted to every priest the permission of celebrating three Masses on the day of the commemoration of the faithful departed. The following conditions were made. One of the Masses might be offered by the celebrant for a private intention, but the Pope desired that of the other two, one should be offered for the souls in Purgatory in general, and the other in satisfaction for an immense number of legacies left for Masses which could not be fulfilled because of the confiscations of the papal land in Italy.
The celebration of these three Masses on November 2 constitutes a privilege in modern Church discipline which is not only rare but almost unique, and places the commemoration of the faithful departed on a level with Christmas Day. It is indeed the Christmas of the Holy Souls.
Purgatory represents the last supreme effort made by God’s love to rescue the sinner and save him from the clutches of the devil. It may be compared to a temple erected to the sanctity of God where the avenging flames destroy everything in the creature, opposed to conformity with the divine beauty and perfections. Estote perfecti, sicut et Pater vester caelestis perfectus est. When the holy Scriptures speak of the flames which form the throne of God and surround him like the walls of his sanctuary, we see in this an image of Purgatory where our feeble virtue will be tested like gold in the furnace of that ineffable sanctity.
Again, when St Paul tells us that God dwells in inaccessible light, we must remember the poor souls in Purgatory, who with eyes still dim from the dust of this world, are too weak to be able to gaze like the eagle on that dazzling brightness. The same apostle warns us to choose carefully the material with which we build: gold, precious stones, wood or straw, for the fire of divine judgement will try it (1 Cor. III, 13). Then the solid substance will remain, but the weak will be destroyed, and the foolish builder, if he desires to be saved, will be forced to escape through the flames, not without grave peril and suffering. The Apostle adds that he may indeed be saved but only through the fire.
In this comparison chosen by St Paul to explain the purity of the Gospel teaching to the Corinthians, Catholic exegetes have rightly seen an allusion to the dogma of Purgatory. According to the Apostle there are certain sins which, whilst they are not grave enough to close the gates of heaven to us, and to cast us into hell, must be atoned for either in this world or the next. The divine Judgement tries our moral actions as the fire tries the builders’ material. If the house burns, the builder, seeing the flames, rushes from the building, escaping through the fire and thus suffers great loss and even wounds.
The suffering souls in Purgatory cannot even pray for mercy. God has created all things in order and everything has its proper time. The time for mercy has passed with this earthly life to give place to justice in eternity. When the building is on fire there can be no discussion or hesitation; he who would save his life must face the flames in order to escape.
Purgatory is a temple, but one which has neither priest nor altar of propitiation. Happily, however, the Communion of Saints unites the Blessed in heaven, the wayfarers on earth, and the suffering souls in one mystical body, and the eucharistic Sacrifice by which Christ una oblatione consummavit in sempiterum sanctificatos, as it gives glory to the elect, also washes in the Blood of the Redemption the stains of those predestined members who are united to Christ by faith, hope, and charity.