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St. John Henry Newman on Purgatory

Fr. Scott Haynes

St. John Henry Newman teaches that the worst pain of purgatory is the working-out of its psychological conflicts. In that place of purification, the soul sees the ugliness of its own sin and its destructive effects. Newman expresses this truth most powerfully in his epic poem, The Dream of Gerontius.


Newman’s poem was such a masterwork of poetry and theology that it demanded to be set to music. Just as Victoria, Palestrina, Mozart, Fauré, and others set the monument of the Requiem Mass to music, the devout Catholic composer Sir Edward Elgar was the one to set Newman’s epic poem, The Dream of Gerontius, with stunning music.

In Elgar’s masterful depiction of The Dream of Gerontius, we meet Gerontius on his deathbed, surrounded by friends. Gerontius begs God, “be with me, in my extremity,” and asks his friends to pray for him. His friends recall God’s mercy towards Noah, Job, Moses and David before Gerontius dies quietly, singing “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

This scene from The Dream of Gerontius reminds me of how, on the verge of death, a pious Jew says the Vidui prayers, confessing his sin to make peace with God, expressing his sorrow for all the sins of his lifetime. This tradition is based on Proverbs 28:13 which states:

“He that hideth his sins, shall not prosper: but he that shall confess, and forsake them, shall obtain mercy.”

From this, Catholics see a similarity to the Last Rites in which the Church prepares the soul to meet God, renouncing life’s sins and embracing God’s mercy. And there we find the key to understanding the purification of our beloved dead – God’s Divine Mercy.


God's fathomless mercy extends beyond death. God’s mercy is yours – there is nothing more God wants to give you -- but there is one condition. There is one thing you must offer to obtain that mercy. It is humility.

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