By Rev. Fr. Jean-Robert Ngandjui
Purification is a familiar concept in Africa. In fact, most Africans have heard of it at least if they have not participated in it. Traditional African purification rites vary from region to region, but there is a physical bath at the core; the sacrifice of an animal and the sprinkling of the of sacrificed animal’s blood.
The one seeking purification is also called to give alms through a celebration or by sharing gifts to the poor, orphans and the underprivileged. Many reasons lead people to seek purification. At the top is the belief that one has been cursed or that there is a dark cloud that prevents one from progressing in one's undertakings. The African who submits to traditional purification rites seeks to have life and to have it abundantly.
The African’s strong belief in purification should be a stepping stone in proposing the Christian belief in purgatory which is concerned with the soul’s final purification. If the African understands the need for purification at the traditional level, it should be easier for him to relate to the Church's teaching on the soul’s final purification in purgatory.
In fact, purgatory is a requirement that flows from God's Justice and Mercy. God created each one of us free, and thus we are responsible for our actions, for the perfection of our souls. Our decisions and effort matter. When most of us leave this earth we are not yet ready to encounter God who is three times holy and therefore the need for purification. In fact, purification must happen either in this life or the next. God made purgatory for those who, though they have died in God’s friendship, still need purification. The Catechism teaches that: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death, they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (1030). God’s mercy also explains purgatory because despite the soul’s imperfect state while passing from the earthly life into eternity, God gives the soul another chance, another opportunity to undergo purification.
In Divine Comedy Dante portrayed purgatory as a mountain to be climbed. The dead who have escaped the punishment of hell press onward and upward by climbing “Mount Purgatory” together. Our prayers for the dead and our offering of Masses for them are a true help to them as they travel. Dante makes it clear that purgatory is a place of joy and hope. The souls in purgatory know they have escaped hell and are headed to heaven.
Furthermore, they are not alone in the effort. There are pains in purgatory, but those pains are connected with the purification that is taking place as the pains are endured. The pains in hell are punitive, but purgatory is purgative. In other words, the pain is for gain; the struggle is for sanctity. The fire is a purifier.
There is a great link between the souls in purgatory and us. This link is confirmed by the Second Vatican Council, "Fully conscious of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead." (Lumen gentium, 50). Because of this communion, we are called to pray for our deceased: “From the beginning, the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them,” says the Catechism. “The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (1032).
At the African traditional level, purification is meant to guarantee a good life on earth. At the Christian level, purification guarantees a good life on earth but also our eternal destiny. Christianity has much more to offer than tradition. It will be the responsibility of the New evangeliser to present this truth in a convincing manner to appeal to the all Africans, and to all the layers of the African reality.