On Purgatory

Light and Life – Sept.-Oct. 2019, Vol 72, No 5 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province

“The Rosary is the most beautiful and the most rich in graces of all prayers; it is the prayer that touches most the Heart of the Mother of God…and if you wish peace to reign in your homes, recite the family Rosary.” Pope Saint Pius X

On Purgatory

By Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.

[Fr. Reginald entered the Dominicans in 1968, and was ordained in 1974. He served the Western Province’s campus ministries at the University of Washington and the University of Oregon, and was very happily the director of the Rosary Center from 2004 until 2016. He is presently director of Vallombrosa Retreat Center and Chaplain to the Dominican nuns at Corpus Christi Monastery—both in Menlo Park, California.]

Our human experience teaches we are no strangers to sin. This is a frightening thought when we consider the assurance of Scripture, “Nothing unclean shall enter it [God’s Kingdom]…but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev. 21:27) This is a powerful reminder of the value of a virtuous life, and cause for immense gratitude. God has provided a means by which we may be cleansed of sin even after our death.

This remedy, of course, is Purgatory, and what our Faith asks us to believe about Purgatory can be expressed very succinctly:

The souls of the just which, in the moment of death, are burdened with venial sins or temporal punishment due to sins, enter Purgatory. (De Fide)

These twenty-four words are as remarkable for what they do not say as they are for what they proclaim. They say nothing about where Purgatory is, how long a soul spends there, or what the soul is apt to find once it arrives. Theologians have provided reflections on all these questions, and we shall explore them shortly. For the moment, however, let us consider only the Church’s belief that God offers a means by which those who are not altogether prepared for His Kingdom will be purified so they can worthily enter heaven.

Purgatory is not a second chance; it is the final step in a life-long journey that leads to God. Our faith assures us God provides a grace appropriate for each step of this journey, and Purgatory is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that he will be present at the last step with the same love that greeted the first.

This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it up on the last day. (Jn 6:39)

Purgatory, like the Mass, proclaims the promise and power of Christ’s preserving, uplifting love. And like the Eucharist, it invites us to identify ourselves in the spiritual drama that St. Paul reminds us we share with Christ.

Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. (Rm 6:3-4)

Purgatory has been an article of our faith from our earliest days. In the Second Book of Maccabees, Judas and his followers arrange to bury their dead comrades, “and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out…Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Mac 12:39)

Many of the Protestant Reformers did not believe the Books of Maccabees to have been inspired, so the Church has often turned elsewhere to identify its Scriptural belief in Purgatory. St. John records Jesus’ saying, “He that lives and believes in me shall not die forever.” (Jn 11:26) But the Book of Revelation observes no one may claim to this glory without being cleansed, because nothing unclean can enter God’s Kingdom. Thus, the Church’s theologians have taught that some form of purification must be accessible after death.

One of these theologians, St. Gregory the Great, points us to Jesus’ words, “…he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come.” (Mt. 12:32) Gregory remarks

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.

We might cite other Scriptural passages to strengthen our belief in Purgatory, (e.g., 1 Cor 3:12), but what may be far more interesting – and valuable for our spiritual life – is to consider the nature of the gift God has given us in Purgatory.

To begin, we might ask why Purgatory can be considered a “gift” when the Church’s great theologians and mystics all describe the pains of Purgatory as far more severe than any we endure in this life? The answer is quite simple: the pains of Purgatory are not harmful, like the pains that afflict us on earth; the pains of Purgatory are intended for our good, to remind us how very much of God’s love we have sacrificed by sin, and how much of the joy of heaven we would be sharing had we not so often chosen lesser goods.

St. Augustine taught, “The fire of Purgatory will be more severe than any pain that can be felt, seen, or conceived in this world….” This is because, in Purgatory, we will realize that one consequence of our sinful life on earth is the delay of our vision of God. St. Thomas Aquinas observed, “The more sensitive a thing is, the greater the pain.” Thus, without our bodies to distract us from our longing for God, and insulate us from this pain, we shall have nothing to stand between us and the pain of the delay of the union we look forward to.

Some will ask how long we must spend in Purgatory? To answer this question we must remember that once we “shuffle off this mortal coil” we are no longer dealing with earthly clocks. Heaven and Hell are eternal realities; both are absolute, and once a soul is consigned to one of those states, nothing can alter that soul’s condition. Purgatory, on the other hand, is a “temporary” state, and one soul endures more or less of Purgatory’s pains than another.

What determines the experience is the condition of the soul at the moment of death. If one has persistently committed a venial sin, she or he may expect to endure a more intense (i.e., longer) punishment in Purgatory. Part of the experience of Purgatory is to teach the soul the folly of sin, and to restore the soul to the state of perfect spiritual health that will qualify it to enter Heaven. Some souls are in greater need of these healing benefits than others; these, understandably must undergo a more intense experience of Purgatory.

Over the centuries, the Church faithful have sought to determine the nature of the pain the soul endures in Purgatory. As we have seen, theologians teach the pains are twofold. We have already considered the pain of loss, which is to be deprived (if only temporarily) of the sight of God. But the souls in Purgatory also suffer a pain of sense. And here is where we encounter what has, since the Middle Ages, been described as the “fire” of Purgatory. This punishment has often been compared to the punishment the damned may expect in Hell, so some have suggested that Purgatory is located in that neighborhood. Scripture provides no clue, and the Church’s teachers are silent on the subject. The nature of the “fire” in Purgatory is equally elusive.

Nonetheless, similarities between the punishments the souls endure in Purgatory resemble those of Hell because both are punishments the soul must endure after death; both are spiritual punishments; and their pain is far greater than anything we can imagine in this life. There, however, the similarity ends. Unlike those condemned to eternal punishment in Hell, the souls in Purgatory possess faith, hope, and charity. In addition, they may rejoice in the expectation of a reward to assuage their pain, and although they cannot see the God they long for, they do not doubt either His presence or their ultimate salvation.

We actively participate in the expectant joy experienced by the souls in Purgatory when we offer prayers for them. Lumen Gentium, a document of the Second Vatican Council, reminds us:

In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members…[honors] with great respect the memory of the dead…[and] that they may be loosed from their sins she offers her suffrages for them. (LG, 50)

This echoes the belief of St. John Chrysostom, who preached:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why should 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.

In the 19th Century Cardinal Manning preached a series of sermons on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When he preached on Piety – which one modern writer has called the love that gives “religion a heart” – he observed that Purgatory is a place where – no matter how active individuals may have been in life – souls are forced to be passive.

They can do nothing…for themselves: they have no longer any sacraments; they do not even pray for themselves. They are so conformed to the will of God, that they suffer there in submission and silence… Therefore it is our duty to help them … by our prayers, our penances, our mortifications, our alms, by the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar…If no one remembers them now, you, at least, if you have in your hearts the gift of piety, will pray for them.

A motto on old sundials reads, “omnes vulnerant, ultima necat.” It refers to the hours of our life and means, “They all wound, the last one kills.” St. Augustine taught that we who live naturally shrink from death because it is so foreign, so terrifying, and so sad. Our belief in Purgatory ought to be very consoling, because it reminds us that while death may be the last moment in our life, it provides the most intimate connection with Christ. It also offers us a unique opportunity to reach out to one another, by praying for a lessening of the pains of those who have died, and by begging that God will soon grant the souls of our beloved dead the union with God they have so earnestly longed for.

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