What is Purgatory?

 

Purgatory. The Catholic Church holds that purgatory is a real and necessary element of our Tradition, going so far as to state in the Council of Florence:

“Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap.ii, iii) that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful” (Denzinger, “Enchiridon”, 983).

Why do you think we would hold this idea or purgatory to be true?

The basic understanding of Purgatory is that it is a state where our venial sins are purged or burned from us. We cannot enter the presence of God with the stain of sin, so we must be made pure.

Feasts such as All Souls remind us to keep in prayer those who have gone before us who are in the state of Purgatory and who need our prayers to move on into eternal bliss.

Where does this understanding of us praying for souls in purgatory come from?

Hebrew Scriptures: 2 Maccabees

making a gathering . . . sent twelve thousand drachmas 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 up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins. (2 Maccabees 12:43-46)

In the New Testament we see most clearly in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians 3:11-15 the concept of purging through fire:

“For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay stubble: Every man’s work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.”

Further, in the Catechism, the Church states the following about purgatory:

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:607

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.608

Concerning the concept of praying for souls in the State of Purgatory, the Catechism states the following again based on our early exploration of 2 Maccabees:

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”609 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.610 The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.611

References from Catechism:

607 Cf. 1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7.
608 St. Gregory the Great, Dial. 4,39:PL 77,396; cf. Mt 12:31.
609 2 Macc 12:46.
610 Cf. Council of Lyons II (1274):DS 856.
611 St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in 1 Cor. 41,5:PG 61,361; cf. Job 1:5.

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