Thursday, January 13, 2011

St Catherine of Genoa (Genova)

Domenico Piola (1627 – 8 April 1703)
Engraving by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Tasnière ca. 1675-1752
Of painting by Domenico Piola (1627 – 8 April 1703)
St Catherine Fieschi Adorno of Genoa with the Crucifix
Print engraving
93 by 60 cm
Biblioteca Reale, Turin

Domenico Piola spent his life mostly in Genoa, except for a working trip to Milan, Piacenza, Bologna and Asti in 1684-5. He and Gregorio de Ferrari, his son-in-law, were the leading artists in Genoa in the second half of the 17th century, and their drawings and paintings had a far-reaching influence on the next generation of Genoese painters

He made a number of important paintings of St Catherine of Genoa (1447 - 15 September 1510) which are still in the city. They were commissioned for her beatification in 1675 by Pope Clement X

In his recent catechesis on Wednesday 12 January 2011, on St Catherine the Pope explained what the painting above represents - part of her "conversion experience" from 20 to 23 March 1473:

"Her conversion began on March 20, 1473, thanks to an unusual experience. Catherine went to the church of St. Benedict and to the monastery of Our Lady of Graces for confession and, kneeling before the priest,

"I received," as she herself writes, "a wound in my heart of the immense love of God," and such a clear vision of her miseries and defects, and at the same time of the goodness of God, that she almost fainted.

She was wounded in her heart by the knowledge of herself, of the life she led and of the goodness of God.

Born from this experience was the decision that oriented her whole life, which expressed in words was: "No more world, no more sin" (cf. Vita Mirabile, 3rv).

Catherine then left, leaving her confession interrupted. When she returned home, she went to the most isolated room and thought for a long time. At that moment she was inwardly instructed on prayer and became conscious of God's love for her, a sinner -- a spiritual experience that she was unable to express in words (cf. Vita Mirabile, 4r).

It was on this occasion that the suffering Jesus appeared to her, carrying the cross, as he is often represented in the iconography of the saint. A few days later, she returned to the priest to finally make a good confession.

The "life of purification" began here, a life that for a long time caused her to suffer a constant pain for the sins committed and drove her to impose penances and sacrifices on herself to show her love of God.

On this path, Catherine became increasingly close to the Lord, until she entered what is known as the "unitive life," that is, a relationship of profound union with God"

The catechesis is part of the series of talks which the Pope is delivering most Wednesdays on women mystical saints and writers in the Church.

Again Catherine was a married laywoman. She never took orders or vows. She was not even a tertiary.

She worked. She led an active life. She worked as helper, then manager and then treasurer of the City Hospital called the Pammatone (Genovese dialect for the Greek word for sportsground for gymnastics and other Olympic games). It was quite an apt name for, as the Pope put it, "the place of her ascent to mystical summits"

Due to the profligacy of her husband, eventually she and her husband had to live there permanently too.

The Pammatone was the largest hospital complex in the city. It was founded in 1422. A new building was found for it in 1471 and there were further extensions after this. The site of this hospital building is now the seat of the Facuty of Economics and Commere at the University of Genova.

Genova being one of the major port city republics on the Mediterranean was afflicted by infectious diseases and plagues. "French pox" was one of the many insidious and dangerous diseases treated at the Hospital. There were two major plague outbreaks in the city in 1497 and 1501

St Catherine is not well known outside Genova. But her influence was great outside Genova and through the centuries.

In the 1490s, Genova was a remarkable city from the religious point of view. In Easter 1490, Savonarola came to the city to deliver the Easter homilies. On 29 August 1490 the first appearance of the Virgin Mary to Benedetto Pareto on Monte Figogna occurred. It is now the site of the Sanctuary of N S della Guardia.

St Catherine gathered about her a number of admirers and companions united by faith. She inspired the founding of the Company of Divine Love by one of her disciples, Ettore Vernazza (d. 27 June 1524) As well as this important religious association, he founded a number of good works associations in Genova, a Hospital for Incurables and for Chronic Diseases in Genova. He later founded similar hospitals in Naples and Rome.

He died in Genova as a resulting of assisting the hospital looking after the sick in the plague of June 1524

Santo Varni 1807 - 1885
Statue of Ettore Vernazza
210 cm (height) x 150cm (width)
From the Collection: Atrio Palazzo Amminstrazione, Genova
(Latin inscription on base: "Hic Ames Dici")

Ettore`s daughter, Battistina Vernazza (b. 15 April 1497 - 1587) was greatly influenced by St Catherine and by her father. St Catherine was her godmother. She was an Italian canoness regular and mystical writer whose writings were inspirational especially during the Counter-Reformation.

The Venerable Battistina Vernazza (b. 15 April 1497 - 1587)

Other people inspired by St Catherine of Genoa and her writings include: Saints Robert Bellarmine and Francis de Sales and Cardinals Henry Edward Manning and Blessed John Henry Newman ("The Dream of Gerontius"), as well as Madame Acarie (1566-1618) and Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629)

Friedrich von Hügel's two volume study, The Mystical Element of Religion is essentially based mainly on her life and work

As the Pope said in his Wednesday talk, outwardly her life did not appear to be noteworthy:

"From her conversion to her death, there were no extraordinary events; only two elements characterized her whole existence: on one hand, her mystical experience, that is, her profound union with God, lived as a spousal union, and on the other, care of the sick, the organization of the hospital, service to her neighbor, especially the most abandoned and needy. These two poles -- God and neighbour -- filled her life, which was spent practically within the walls of the hospital."

The main works of and about her containing her words and thought are:

"Vita," (Life) on her life itself; "Dimostratione et dechiaratione del purgatorio" (Demonstration and Declaration of Purgatory) -- better known as "Trattato" (Treatise on Purgatory); and "Dialogo tra l’anima e il corpo" (Dialogues on the Soul and Body)

She died before Martin Luther composed his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517. The life, works, thought and influence of St Catherine is yet another sign that the Catholic Church was reforming itself from within well before the Lutheran Reformation. She was the perfect response to his views on Faith, good works and Purgatory

A great deal of the Pope`s talk was on the saint`s thought about Purgatory. Her view on Purgatory was different from that of earlier times and it is perhaps her view which is now in the ascendant. The Pope said:

"Catherine's thought on purgatory, for which she is particularly known, is condensed in the last two parts of the book mentioned at the beginning: "Treatise on Purgatory" and "Dialogues on the Soul and Body."

It is important to observe that, in her mystical experience, Catherine never had specific revelations on purgatory or on souls that are being purified there.

However, in the writings inspired by our saint purgatory is a central element, and the way of describing it has original characteristics in relation to her era.

The first original feature refers to the "place" of the purification of souls. In her time [purgatory] was presented primarily with recourse to images connected to space: There was thought of a certain space where purgatory would be found.

For Catherine, instead, purgatory is not represented as an element of the landscape of the core of the earth; it is a fire that is not exterior but interior. This is purgatory, an interior fire.

The saint speaks of the soul's journey of purification to full communion with God, based on her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in contrast to the infinite love of God (cf. Vita Mirabile, 171v).

We have heard about the moment of her conversion, when Catherine suddenly felt God's goodness, the infinite distance of her life from this goodness and a burning fire within her. And this is the fire that purifies, it is the interior fire of purgatory.

Here also there is an original feature in relation to the thought of the era. She does not begin, in fact, from the beyond to narrate the torments of purgatory -- as was usual at that time and perhaps also today -- and then indicate the path for purification or conversion.

Instead our saint begins from her own interior experience of her life on the path to eternity. The soul, says Catherine, appears before God still bound to the desires and the sorrow that derive from sin, and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the Beatific Vision of God.

Catherine affirms that God is so pure and holy that the soul with stains of sin cannot be in the presence of the Divine Majesty (cf. Vita Mirabile, 177r). And we also realize how far we are, how full we are of so many things, so that we cannot see God. The soul is conscious of the immense love and perfect justice of God and, in consequence, suffers for not having responded correctly and perfectly to that love, and that is why the love itself of God becomes a flame.

Love itself purifies it from its dross of sin.

Theological and mystical sources typical of the era can be found in Catherine's work. Particularly there is an image from Dionysius the Areopagite: that of the golden thread that unites the human heart with God himself. When God has purified man, he ties him with a very fine thread of gold, which is his love, and attracts him to himself with such strong affection that man remains as "overcome and conquered and altogether outside himself."

Thus the human heart is invaded by the love of God, which becomes the only guide, the sole motor of his existence (cf. Vita Mirabile, 246rv). This situation of elevation to God and of abandonment to his will, expressed in the image of the thread, is used by Catherine to express the action of the divine light on souls in purgatory, light that purifies them and elevates them to the splendors of the shining rays of God (cf. Vita Mirabile, 179r).

Dear friends, the saints, in their experience of union with God, reach such profound "knowledge" of the divine mysteries, in which love and knowledge are fused, that they are of help to theologians themselves in their task of study, of "intelligentia fidei," of "intelligentia" of the mysteries of the faith, of real deepening in the mysteries, for example, of what purgatory is.

With her life, St. Catherine teaches us that the more we love God and enter into intimacy with him in prayer, the more he lets himself be known and enkindles our heart with his love. Writing on purgatory, the saint reminds us of a fundamental truth of the faith that becomes for us an invitation to pray for the deceased so that they can attain the blessed vision of God in the communion of saints (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1032)"

The idea that Purgatory is not a place rooted in our conception of time and space but a condition, that purgatory is a process of purification, that on the moment of death Christ offers mercy, that it is not a prologation of earthly existence, and that those in Purgatory are in communion with those already passed away immersed in the Love of Christ on their journey to unity with the Eternal, reminds one of the Audience talk given by Pope John Paul II on 4th August 1999 when he talked about Purgatory:

"1. As we have seen in the previous two catecheses, on the basis of the definitive option for or against God, the human being finds he faces one of these alternatives: either to live with the Lord in eternal beatitude, or to remain far from his presence.

For those who find themselves in a condition of being open to God, but still imperfectly, the journey towards full beatitude requires a purification, which the faith of the Church illustrates in the doctrine of 'Purgatory' (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1030-1032).

2. In Sacred Scripture, we can grasp certain elements that help us to understand the meaning of this doctrine, even if it is not formally described. They express the belief that we cannot approach God without undergoing some kind of purification.

According to Old Testament religious law, what is destined for God must be perfect. As a result, physical integrity is also specifically required for the realities which come into contact with God at the sacrificial level such as, for example, sacrificial animals (cf. Lv 22:22) or at the institutional level, as in the case of priests or ministers of worship (cf. Lv 21:17-23).

Total dedication to the God of the Covenant, along the lines of the great teachings found in Deuteronomy (cf. 6:5), and which must correspond to this physical integrity, is required of individuals and society as a whole (cf. 1 Kgs 8:61). It is a matter of loving God with all one's being, with purity of heart and the witness of deeds (cf. ibid., 10:12f.)

The need for integrity obviously becomes necessary after death, for entering into perfect and complete communion with God. Those who do not possess this integrity must undergo purification.

This is suggested by a text of St Paul. The Apostle speaks of the value of each person's work which will be revealed on the day of judgement and says:

'If the work which any man has built on the foundation [which is Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire' (1 Cor 3:14-15).

3. At times, to reach a state of perfect integrity a person's intercession or mediation is needed. For example, Moses obtains pardon for the people with a prayer in which he recalls the saving work done by God in the past, and prays for God's fidelity to the oath made to his ancestors (cf. Ex 32:30, 11-13). The figure of the Servant of the Lord, outlined in the Book of Isaiah, is also portrayed by his role of intercession and expiation for many; at the end of his suffering he 'will see the light' and 'will justify many', bearing their iniquities (cf. Is 52:13-53, 12, especially vv. 53:11).

Psalm 51 can be considered, according to the perspective of the Old Testament, as a synthesis of the process of reintegration: the sinner confesses and recognizes his guilt (v. 3), asking insistently to be purified or 'cleansed' (vv. 2, 9, 10, 17) so as to proclaim the divine praise (v. 15).

4. In the New Testament Christ is presented as the intercessor who assumes the functions of high priest on the day of expiation (cf. Heb 5:7; 7:25). But in him the priesthood is presented in a new and definitive form. He enters the heavenly shrine once and for all, to intercede with God on our behalf (cf. Heb 9:23-26, especially, v. 24). He is both priest and 'victim of expiation' for the sins of the whole world (cf. 1 Jn 2:2).

Jesus, as the great intercessor who atones for us, will fully reveal himself at the end of our life when he will express himself with the offer of mercy, but also with the inevitable judgement for those who refuse the Father's love and forgiveness.

This offer of mercy does not exclude the duty to present ourselves to God, pure and whole, rich in that love which Paul calls a '[bond] of perfect harmony' (Col 3:14).

5. In following the Gospel exhortation to be perfect like the heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:48) during our earthly life, we are called to grow in love, to be sound and flawless before God the Father 'at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints' (1 Thes 3:12f.). Moreover, we are invited to 'cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit' (2 Cor 7:1; cf. 1 Jn 3:3), because the encounter with God requires absolute purity.

Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church's teaching on purgatory.

The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection (cf. Ecumenical Council of Florence, Decretum pro Graecis: DS 1304; Ecumenical Council of Trent, Decretum de iustificatione: DS 1580; Decretum de purgatorio: DS 1820).

It is necessary to explain that the state of purification is not a prolungation of the earthly condition, almost as if after death one were given another possibility to change one's destiny.

The Church's teaching in this regard is unequivocal and was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council which teaches:

'Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed (cf. Heb 9:27), we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where "men will weep and gnash their teeth' (Mt 22:13 and 25:30)" (Lumen gentium, n. 48).

6. One last important aspect which the Church's tradition has always pointed out should be reproposed today: the dimension of 'communio'. Those, in fact, who find themselves in the state of purification are united both with the blessed who already enjoy the fullness of eternal life, and with us on this earth on our way towards the Father's house (cf. CCC, n. 1032).

Just as in their earthly life believers are united in the one Mystical Body, so after death those who live in a state of purification experience the same ecclesial solidarity which works through prayer, prayers for suffrage and love for their other brothers and sisters in the faith. Purification is lived in the essential bond created between those who live in this world and those who enjoy eternal beatitude.

* * * * *

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Following our catechesis on the reality of heaven and hell, today we consider "Purgatory", the process of purification for those who die in the love of God but who are not completely imbued with that love.

Sacred Scripture teaches us that we must be purified if we are to enter into perfect and complete union with God. Jesus Christ, who became the perfect expiation for our sins and took upon himself the punishment that was our due, brings us God's mercy and love. But before we enter into God's Kingdom every trace of sin within us must be eliminated, every imperfection in our soul must be corrected. This is exactly what takes place in Purgatory.

Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God but are immersed in the love of Christ. Neither are they separated from the saints in heaven - who already enjoy the fullness of eternal life - nor from us on earth - who continue on our pilgrim journey to the Father's house.

We all remain united in the Mystical Body of Christ, and we can therefore offer up prayers and good works on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Purgatory."

Michel François Dandré-Bardon (1700-1783)
Saint Jacques intercédant auprès de la Vierge en faveur des âmes du Purgatoire/ St James interceding with the Virgin in favour of the souls of Purgatory
Oil on canvas
47 cm x 31.5cm
Musée Magnin, Dijon

Pope Benedict XVI has talked before about Purgatory and in similar terms to that of Pope John Paul II.  In his Encyclical Spe Salvi (30 November 2007) he devoted quite a lengthy passage to Purgatory.

What happens after death and what is meant by "eternal life" are questions which seem to be major sources of discussion by the present Pope. Indeed at the beginning of his Pontificate he did set up a Doctrinal Commission to consider the question of "Limbo" and whether the Church teaching on it needed to be re-considered.

For the present Pope and his predecessor, Purgatory exists. In the present age, such a belief is counter-cultural. But for them Purgatory does not seem to be that of Dante in his Purgatorio. Their concept of Purgatory is more attuned to modern ears and in accordance with ideas of Justice as well as unlimited Divine Mercy.

It seems to be the start of an attempt to describe what happens to man after he dies: what is meant by life after death. Modern man in modern society does not believe that there is life after death. The attempt is an important element in the attempt to re-Christianise Western society.

In Spe Salvi, the Pope wrote:

"43. ...Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgement is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries.

I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life.

The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing.

44. To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful.

A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope.

Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love.

God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value.

Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.

Here I would like to quote a passage from Plato which expresses a premonition of just judgement that in many respects remains true and salutary for Christians too. Albeit using mythological images, he expresses the truth with an unambiguous clarity, saying that in the end souls will stand naked before the judge. It no longer matters what they once were in history, but only what they are in truth:

“Often, when it is the king or some other monarch or potentate that he (the judge) has to deal with, he finds that there is no soundness in the soul whatever; he finds it scourged and scarred by the various acts of perjury and wrong-doing ...; it is twisted and warped by lies and vanity, and nothing is straight because truth has had no part in its development. Power, luxury, pride, and debauchery have left it so full of disproportion and ugliness that when he has inspected it (he) sends it straight to prison, where on its arrival it will undergo the appropriate punishment ... Sometimes, though, the eye of the judge lights on a different soul which has lived in purity and truth ... then he is struck with admiration and sends him to the isles of the blessed”.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Lk 16:19-31), Jesus admonishes us through the image of a soul destroyed by arrogance and opulence, who has created an impassable chasm between himself and the poor man; the chasm of being trapped within material pleasures; the chasm of forgetting the other, of incapacity to love, which then becomes a burning and unquenchable thirst.

We must note that in this parable Jesus is not referring to the final destiny after the Last Judgement, but is taking up a notion found, inter alia, in early Judaism, namely that of an intermediate state between death and resurrection, a state in which the final sentence is yet to be pronounced.

45. This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God.

The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory.

We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms.

There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are[38].

46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life.

For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God.

In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur?

Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God's judgement according to each person's particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it.

Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ.

This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death.

Then Paul continues:

"Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15).

In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves.

All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.

In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love.

Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart's time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ.

The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

48. A further point must be mentioned here, because it is important for the practice of Christian hope.

Early Jewish thought includes the idea that one can help the deceased in their intermediate state through prayer (see for example 2 Macc 12:38-45; first century BC).

The equivalent practice was readily adopted by Christians and is common to the Eastern and Western Church. The East does not recognize the purifying and expiatory suffering of souls in the afterlife, but it does acknowledge various levels of beatitude and of suffering in the intermediate state.

The souls of the departed can, however, receive “solace and refreshment” through the Eucharist, prayer and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today.

Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other?

When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve.

And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God's time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.

In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too.

As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well."

For more about St Catherine of Genoa see: