Christiane Hourtiq is a French Helper Sister who deepened the Charism of
our Congregation over the years of her service as a
Theology professor in Paris. She was a member of the
team who wrote the Constitutions of the Helpers
approved by the Vatican in 1987. She has a long activity
in France in giving sessions to Lay and Religious people in
Theology and Spirituality.
History and Theology of Purgatory
To say that there is a "history" of Purgatory is to acknowledge that Purgatory has not been understood in the same way always and everywhere. It means recognising that the Christian faith is understood and lived in different ways in different times and cultures.
Basically, faith remains the same, but the way it is expressed evolves. To know about this evolution about Purgatory gives important insights.
The Bible does not speak of Purgatory and the first Christians did not speak of it.
For more than 1000 years the Christian faith has concentrated on the essential:
There is a life beyond death where every human person is called to meet God and share his or her life.
To achieve this union with God, human beings need purification. For most of them, this purification is accomplished in the afterlife. In this regard, the first Christians spoke of "fire that purifies" or "punishment that purifies".
For them, it was a spiritual experience of conversion.
The living is in communion with the dead. Spiritual goods are shared:
this is the "communion of saints". Hence the value of prayer for the dead
The word "Purgatory" began to be used only in the 12th century (Middle Age), to refer to what was imagined to be a place between heaven and hell – in a kind of “geography of the afterlife”.
This change was due to a change in society. Society became more refined. The opposition between heaven and hell was felt as too radical. Most people are neither “just good” nor “just bad”. There has to be an intermediate stage.
At the same time trade developed. In this context, the Church instituted an “accounting system” which attributed a precise value to prayers for the souls in Purgatory and encouraged offerings for masses to be celebrated for them.
Thus the practice of indulgences became excessively widespread.
This development and its excesses are one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation and today it is the cause of deep unease for Catholics. The result is that we no longer dare to tackle the question of Purgatory and are embarrassed when asked if it exists.
It is true that the historical image taken by Purgatory is disappearing. We feel that it is not appropriate to talk about it in terms of time and space and that it is impossible to represent it with images. But the faith of the Church, which is expressed through the doctrine of Purgatory, retains all its value.
The Church's teaching on Purgatory holds together these essential statements:
God, who wants all to be saved (1Tim 2:4), never abandons the sinner. The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed this very clearly: "Since Christ died for all and since man&'s last vocation is truly unique, namely divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all – in a way that God knows – the possibility of being associated to the Paschal Mystery. "(Gaudium et Spes 22:5). When Jesus and the Christian tradition evoke the possibility that some may not be saved, it is actually a call to conversion. It is to affirm that God does not impose himself and that the gift of his own life is to be welcomed freely. In order to reach a complete union with God, human beings must go through a stage where they must completely rely on God's transforming action.
The Church's teaching on Purgatory shows that she entrusts herself to God so that the encounter with him may enable us, despite all our failures, to welcome his love definitively. An adjustment is necessary for every human being, to achieve the final encounter with God. This adjustment can only be fully realised by God. Already here on earth the transforming action of God works on our lives and can go as far as radical sanctification. The testimony of the saints teaches us that God's victory over everything which stands on the way of his love and truth requires
a passage through a stage where the greatest suffering and the greatest joy
are mysteriously combined.
We are all in solidarity, even beyond the boundaries of the visible
When God establishes a relationship with someone, he makes him/her a member of a people. From the very beginning, the Church has thought of itself as the people of those who belong to Christ, whether they are on this earth or have passed through death. When she celebrates the Eucharist, the Church calls them all together, affirming the reality of a universal communion beyond its visible boundaries. The doctrine of Purgatory is a way of expressing this ecclesial belonging of the deceased, whether Christian or not. It assumes that our prayer and the commitment of our lives have an impact on our brothers and sisters, whether they are here below or beyond.
Purgatory in the Helpers’ life
The vocation of a "Helper of the Holy Souls in Purgatory" is a call to live certain aspects of Christian life in a special way:
The most fundamental intuition of Mary of Providence is the refusal to be stopped and enclosed by boundaries. Her active and audacious personality was drawing her to live something well beyond the narrow possibilities offered to women in her time. She felt called to cross boundaries.
- The ultimate boundary is death. She decided to cross it by praying and offering her life for the dead.
- She also decided to cross the boundaries that separate peoples, by committing herself to the work of Holy Childhood in favour of the children of China.
- When she founded the Institute she left Loos for Paris because her project had a universal aim from the beginning. Like the Jesuits, the Helpers were "sent to various places". Internationality is a constitutive dimension of our vocation.
See the Constitutions, articles 22 and 23.
The Paschal Mystery
Religious life consists of following Jesus Christ, but there are different ways of doing this. Our vocation as Helpers calls us more specifically to "follow Jesus Christ in his Passover", that is, in his passage from the Passion to the Resurrection.
The Paschal Mystery has two aspects :
- a passage through trial, suffering and death;
- a fulfilment in union with God who is fullness of life.
Our Constitutions specify in the articles 18 and 19 what this means in concrete terms.
At the end of this Passover, there is a fulfilment (art. 34) which is the "final meeting with God" (art. 3) through which human beings "attain the end of their creation" (art. 6). This aspect of our vocation is a very strong call to take seriously the virtue of hope (art. 12). Our world is in need of hope and our vocation as Helpers is service of Hope.
A spiritual experience of purification and abandonment
Article 18 speaks of "God’s transforming love".
Article 20 refers to what happens in the encounter with God, as it might be done here on earth.
Article 21 leads to the avoidance of any form of accountancy.