We celebrate when a loved one returns from the hospital, but the homecoming patient often isn’t ready to celebrate. He can’t handle a party after days or weeks in the hospital lying on his back and being fed medicines. Home suddenly seems like a war zone full of hidden mines, where any normal action might result in grievous bodily harm. The hospital seems like a haven, where all dangers had been removed and (relative) comfort guaranteed by company policy.
After all this illness, home no longer feels like home. He’s not well enough to be happy.
This, I think, is what Purgatory is like.
We have been looking forward to our homecoming in Heaven our whole lives, but after years of sins small and large, we find ourselves gnawed by worry at the mysterious otherness of home. After death, all but the holiest of us will discover that we are not strong enough for the forceful joys of seeing God face to face.
We need a period of convalescence even after getting home before we can really rejoice at having arrived there at last. In his mercy, God doesn’t demand that we be perfect before we die, any more than a hospital demands its patients be able to run a marathon before discharging them. He takes us home first, and then slowly heals us of our wounds until we are strong enough for beatitude.
Purgatory, of course, is not fun. It’s painful enough to be away from home, and it can be even harder to be there already and not be able to enjoy it, knowing that the ones you love are laughing and celebrating upstairs while you lie prone and in pain somewhere on the ground floor. Being surrounded by joy in which we cannot take part is one of the bitterest sufferings we know.
When a sick person comes home from the hospital, we can’t do much to help him readjust. Happily, God allows us to offer prayers and sufferings on this earth for the souls in Purgatory, that they may be healed more quickly and may find themselves able to take their first steady steps in the firm ground of Heaven.
In particular, offering a Mass for the repose of a dead loved one is a gift far more splendid than the grandest homecoming party, as it unites the soul of our loved one to the healing sacrifice of Christ the Divine Physician in the most intimate way. And through the life of grace on earth, we ask God to heal us even now of the wounds and imperfections that make us unfit for the joy of Heaven, allowing our lives to be shaped by faith in him, hope in his desire to save us, and “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Being sick is hard, and laboring to be well can be even harder. But how great is the rejoicing in Heaven at the homecoming of even one repentant sinner. And how great will our rejoicing be when, after the painful grace of Purgatory, God has made us strong enough to celebrate.
Fr. Gabriel Torretta, O.P., is a Dominican priest currently serving as parochial vicar at St. Gertrude Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. A longer version of this article originally appeared on Dominicana, a publication of the student brothers of the St. Joseph Province of the Order of Preachers.