MY CATHOLIC FAITH
LXXV. Existence of Purgatory
Both reason and faith tell us that there is a middle ground of expiation, where the soul is cleansed from all stain of sin before it can enter the glory of heaven. “There shall not enter into it anything defiled” (Apoc. 21:27). Christ said, “Amen, I say to thee, thou will not come out from it until thou hast paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:26). Even persons who deny the existence of purgatory instinctively pray for their loved ones who have died. This would be great inconsistency if their reason did not tell them that their prayers would do the dead good. Prayers are useless for those in heaven or hell.
What is purgatory? –Purgatory is a place of temporary punishment for those who die in the state of grace, but are guilty of venial sin, or have not fully satisfied for the temporal punishment due to their sins.
Purgatory is a middle state where souls destined for heaven are detained and purified. Souls in purgatory cannot help themselves, for their time for meriting is past. But they can be helped by the faithful on earth, by prayers and other good works.
In some places, at eight o’clock at night, the church bells sound, to admonish the faithful to pray for the souls in purgatory. This hour is in commemoration of Christ’s prayer in the garden. We should then kneel and pray one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and the Requiem aeternam: “Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them,” etc.
Belief in the utility of praying for the dead automatically includes belief in the existence of purgatory. If there were no purgatory, it would be useless to pray for the dead, because saints in heaven need no help, and those in hell are beyond aid.
And we can be sure there will be no more purgatory after the General judgment; because the reason for its existence will have passed.
Purgatory is a place of temporary punishment for those who have died in venial sin, or who have not fully satisfied God’s justice for mortal sins already forgiven.
A boy steals an apple from a stall in the market; this is a venial sin punishable in purgatory. Some argue that God is a good God, and will not punish such slight sins with the pains of purgatory. We must remember, nevertheless, that the judgments of God are different from those of men, as His holiness is far above human holiness.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.” Let us reverence God’s holiness and justice, as we have loving confidence in His mercy.
A man commits a cruel murder. This is a mortal sin which, unrepented and unconfessed, will send him to hell.
The man repents, confesses, and obtains absolution for his sin; the guilt therefore is removed. But justice requires that he make up for the evil he has done; this atonement takes place in purgatory, unless he makes full satisfaction before death.
The doctrine of purgatory is eminently consoling to the human heart. It consoles us when our loved ones die. Purgatory is a bond of union making us realize that death is not an eternal separation for the just, but only a loss of their bodily presence.
Purgatory gives us an assurance that we are still in touch with our beloved dead. We are consoled by the knowledge that we can still help them with prayer, as in life we so helped them.
Is the doctrine of the existence of purgatory reasonable? –The doctrine of the existence of Purgatory is not only reasonable, but its negation is eminently contrary to reason; it is taught in Holy Scripture, and has been taught by the Church from the very beginning.
The doctrine of a middle state of purgation is taught in the Old Testament, and was firmly believed in by the Hebrews.
After a battle, Judas Machabeus ordered prayers and sacrifices offered up for his slain comrades. “And making a gathering, he sent twelve drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection. For, if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness had great grace laid for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (2 Mach. 12:43-46).
When Our Lord came on earth, He purified the Jewish Church of all those human changes that with the years had crept into its usages and beliefs. But He never reproved anyone for belief in a middle state of purgation, or prayers for the dead.
On the contrary, Christ more than once implied the existence of purgatory. He said “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this world, or in the world to come” (Matt. 12:32). When Our Lord said that a sin will not be forgiven in the next life, He left us to conclude that some sins will be thus forgiven. But in the next life, sins cannot be forgiven in heaven: “There shall not enter into it anything defiled” (Apoc. 21:27). Neither can sins be forgiven in hell, for out of hell there is no redemption. They must therefore be forgiven in a middle state, Purgatory.
Belief in the existence of Purgatory is a continuous and solemn teaching of the Church. From St. Paul, the early Fathers, the Doctors of the Church, on through the ages, the Church has taught the existence of Purgatory, and the correlated doctrine of the usefulness of praying for the dead.
From the beginning Christians prayed for the dead at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The oldest books used at Mass contain prayers for the dead.
The doctrine of Purgatory was given solemn definition by the Council of Trent as follows: “There is a purgatory, and the souls there detained are assisted by the suffrages of the faithful, but especially by the most acceptable, sacrifice of the altar.”
This dogmatic definition contains three points of faith that all Catholics are compelled to believe: (a) that there is a purgatory; (b) that after death souls suffer there for their sins; (c) that the living can extend assistance to such souls.
Reason demands belief in the existence of purgatory. If a man dies with some slight stain on his soul, a sin of impatience, or an idle word, is he fit to enter heaven? God’s sanctity forbids it: “There shall not enter into it anything defiled” (Apoc. 21:27) . But must such a soul be consigned to hell? God’s mercy and justice forbid it.
Therefore reason concludes the existence of a middle and temporary state of expiation, where the soul is cleansed from all stain of sin before it can be admitted into the perfect holiness and bliss of heaven. “Amen, I say to thee, thou wilt not come out from it until thou hast paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:26).
Among nearly all peoples there has persisted a belief that souls must undergo some sort of purification after death. This would point to the doctrine of purgatory.
The Greek story of Prometheus implies a place of purgation. The Egyptians and others believed in the transmigration of souls. Legends and myths of all nations, as well as burial customs, indicate belief in the possibility of helping the dead.