Thursday, November 09, 2006

Understanding Purgatory

Something for this month dedicated to the Holy Souls. My article follows, scroll down to the previous post for more links to other articles on purgatory...


From the new Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
210. What is purgatory?

Purgatory is the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven.

211. How can we help the souls being purified in purgatory?

Because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.

These brief answers dispel a lot of misconceptions that surround the Church’s doctrine of purgatory. Purgatory is not an “in between” state, for those “stuck” between heaven and hell. Purgatory is not a second chance to earn one’s salvation. Purgatory is a state that is only for those who are saved, those who have died “in God’s friendship” (that is, in a state of sanctifying grace) and yet who still have need of further purification. It is an exercise of God’s mercy and grace.

Our need for purification

One might ask, “why would a baptized Christian who has not committed unrepentant mortal sin still have further need for purification?”

Even after the sanctification of baptism, we still commit sin and have a certain attachment to sin. Mortal sin is what cuts us off from communion with God and makes us incapable of eternal life (this is the “eternal punishment” of sin). Venial sin, however, also affects our ability to stand in God’s presence. “…Every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here or on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1472).

In the Old Testament, God told Moses that no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20). Jesus Christ reiterated this point on the Sermon on the Mount: “blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God” (Mt 5:8). The book of Revelation tells us of heaven that “nothing unclean will enter it, nor any [one] who does abominable things or tells lies” (Rev 21:27). So great is God’s heavenly glory, that we would not be able to stand in his eternal presence if we still had “an unhealthy attachment to creatures” and attachment to sin. St. Paul urged the Philippians to “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish” (Phil 2:15). God desires that we are completely purified—pure of heart, without blemish—so that we can enjoy the beatific vision and live with Him for eternity. Sometimes our purification happens through suffering on earth (all of the great saints experienced some aspect of suffering)… sometimes this is completed after death. The suffering in purgatory stems from the fact that the holy soul is prevented from what they desire the most—being in God’s presence.

Purgatory in Scripture
While you will not find the word “purgatory” in the Bible (just as you will not find the words “Trinity” or “Incarnation” in the Bible), certain texts of Scripture do speak of a cleansing fire (CCC 1031). Some Scripture verses related to the doctrine of purgatory:

Matt 5:25-26: “you will be thrown into prison… not be released until…paid the last penny.”
Matt 12:32: (Particular sin not forgiven in this life or next—implies some sins could be forgiven after death).

1 Cor 3:15: “If someone’s work is burned…the person will be saved, but only as through fire.”
2 Tim 1:16-18 (Paul prays—asks God to have mercy on his dead friend, Onesiphorus.)
1 Peter 3:18-20: (Jesus preached to the “spirits in prison.”)
1 John 5:16-17 (Distinction made between deadly sins and ones that are not deadly.)

[see also: Lev 26:41, 43; 2 Sam 2:14; 2 Macc 12:38-46; Is 4:4; 6:5-7, 33:11-14; Mic 7:8-9; Zech 9:11; Mal 3:2-4; Matt 5:48; 12:36; 18:34f; Luke 12:58f; 16:19-31; 1 Cor 3:10-16; 2 Cor 5:10; 7:1; Eph 4:8-10; Phil 2:10-11; Heb 12:14, 29; James 3:2; 1 Pet 3:19; 4:6; Rev 5:3, 13.]

Prayer for the dead

The Church’s teaching is based, in part, upon the ancient tradition of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the death, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46). “From the beginning the Church has honored 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” (CCC #1032). St. Augustine’s mother St. Monica said before her death: “Put this body anywhere! Don’t trouble yourselves about it! I simply ask you to remember me at the Lord’s altar wherever you are” (5th century). Noted ancient Church theologians make reference to the practice of praying for the departed: St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and Tertullian, etc. (see the previous post on links to Purgatory articles:

How do I engage my students to be aware of the Holy Souls in purgatory?

One idea might be to make a poster with the names of beloved relatives who have passed away. And remind the students that all prayers offered in class during the month of November are offered for the eternal rest of their loved ones. Ask the students to make small acts of self-denial (as we all should try to do some form of penance every Friday), and to offer up any of their small moments of suffering for the Holy Souls. Encourage families to have the Holy Mass offered for a loved one.

If we pray for a beloved family member, doesn’t this insult them by implying they are not in heaven?
This is actually a common fear. However, the only souls that we know are in heaven are those who have been formally canonized by the Church. Otherwise, it is a great act of charity (and a spiritual work of mercy) to pray for the souls who may still need purification before entering heaven. (I wonder how many souls go without prayers for this reason!) If the one you pray for has already entered God’s presence in heaven, then your prayers will go to another soul in need (God does not waste any prayer). Otherwise, do not immerse yourself in anxiety—pray for your loved ones, and then entrust them to the care of God who is perfect justice and mercy!

The Church’s Prayer for the Faithful Departed
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.