Thoughts on Purgatory

Over the years I have been asked numerous questions about Purgatory and I have answered some in my columns in the Catholic Weekly. Here are two of them, taken from my books Question Time 1 and Question Time 2.

25. The belief in purgatory

Now that we are in the month traditionally devoted to praying for the souls in purgatory, I would like to ask where we Catholics get our belief in purgatory. Protestants don’t believe in it and it doesn’t seem to be very clear in the Bible.

The Church’s belief in a state or place of purification of the soul after death goes right back to the beginning. Really, it goes back to the Old Testament. In the Second Book of the Maccabees we read how Judas the Maccabee, discovering that his comrades who had been killed in battle were all wearing tokens of the false gods of Jamnia, prayed that their sins might be forgiven. He then took up a collection to be sent to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice offered for them, “that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Mac 12:45). This clearly attests to the belief of the Jews in the second century BC that there was a resurrection of the dead and that persons could be helped to be freed from their sins after death by our sacrifices and prayers. In other words, that there is a purgatory.

While the New Testament is not explicit in teaching about purgatory, various texts allude to it. The book of Revelation, for example, says that “nothing unclean shall enter” the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:27). And St Paul writes that in the judgment everyone’s work will be tested by fire, and if one’s work is burned up, he “will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).

Independently of Scripture, though, the early Christians believed in purgatory from the outset. Writings on tombs and in the catacombs include such inscriptions as: “In your prayers, remember us who have gone before you”, “May you have eternal life in Christ”, “May he rest in peace,” etc. If the early Christians thought everyone went straight to heaven, there would have been no reason to ask for prayers for the deceased.

Towards the end of the second century, Tertullian describes how the Church prayed for the dead and offered the Mass for them on the anniversary of their death (De monogamia, 10). In the middle of the fourth century, St Cyril of Jerusalem, in his description of the Mass, mentions the prayer for all the faithful departed after the Consecration, ascribing to it the power of reconciling the deceased with God (Cat. myst., 5, 9). And we recall St Monica’s request to her son Augustine just before her death: “Lay this body anywhere…This only I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be” (St Augustine, Confessions 9, 10-11).

So widespread was the custom of praying and offering Masses for the faithful departed that St Isidore of Seville could write in the seventh century: “To offer the sacrifice for the repose of the faithful departed is a custom observed all over the world. For this reason we believe that it is a custom taught by the very Apostles” (On ecclesiastical offices, 1).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, summing up the Church’s belief, says: “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” (CCC 1030). It goes on to say: “From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC 1032).

So it is clear that the belief in purgatory has been there since the very beginning of the Church. Even if there were nothing at all in the Bible about it, we would still believe in it as coming from the living Tradition of the Church.

186. Prayer for the souls in Purgatory

How do our prayers help the souls in Purgatory? I always thought that the length of their stay in Purgatory was dependent on the state of their soul when they died and that our prayers cannot shorten that time. Can you please enlighten me?

It is true, as you say, that the length of time a soul must spend in Purgatory, or the extent of their punishment there, is determined by the state of their soul at the moment of death. It is generally taught that the soul needs to purified of three things in order to be able to enter heaven: temporal punishment owing for sin, bad habits and attachments caused by sin, and any lack of sorrow for venial sins.

I should explain what we mean by temporal punishment. Every sin offends God and harms his Mystical Body, the Church. The sinner, in addition to being forgiven by God for the sin through the sacrament of Penance, must do something to make up for the harm caused. This is known as temporal punishment, since it must be undergone in time, either here on earth through such things as good works, acts of penance, prayer and indulgences, or in Purgatory. The fewer sins we commit, the more good works, prayers and penances we do and the more indulgences we gain, the shorter will be our time in Purgatory, if indeed we have to go there at all.

Since at their death each person has a different amount of temporal punishment owing for their sins, a different number of bad habits and attachments and a different degree of lack of sorrow for venial sins, it is only right that each soul will have a different amount of time, or degree of suffering, in Purgatory. But we should never forget that God, in his infinite mercy, demands much less punishment than our sins deserve. If it were not for his mercy, we would never get out of Purgatory!

Also, we should remember that the suffering in Purgatory is a happy suffering. The souls there welcome their suffering because it purifies them for their entry into heaven, of which they are assured. Not for nothing do we call them the “blessed souls” in Purgatory. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of this suffering as coming through the encounter of the soul with the love of Christ. In his encyclical Spe salvi he writes: “This encounter with [Christ], as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves… 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… The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy” (SS, 47).

Returning to your question, if each soul’s degree of suffering is determined at the moment of death, how can our prayers help them? Again, it is a matter of the mercy of God, expressed through the Communion of Saints. Just as God, in his power and mercy, answers our prayers for others here on earth by shortening their sufferings, curing their diseases more quickly, healing broken relationships, etc., so he can answer our prayers for the souls in Purgatory by shortening their sufferings.

Pope Benedict explains it like this: “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… 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” (SS, 48).

Indeed, over the centuries there have been numerous accounts of souls in Purgatory appearing to people on earth, some of them later canonised as saints, and asking for their prayers. Often the souls relate how the prayers of those on earth helped them and prepared them for heaven.

In the month of November, which is traditionally dedicated to the souls in Purgatory, we do well to help the holy souls as much as we can: having Masses offered for them, praying for them, offering penances for them and gaining indulgences for them. But we should not limit these prayers to the month of November. We can help the souls in Purgatory at any time.