What is purgatory?

Gospel Reflection: Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

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 of their venial sins to enter into the happiness of heaven.  It seems that purgatory is not the most comfortable subject to talk about, especially at funerals.  We often say that the deceased is “in a better place” and assume that they are in heaven.  Indeed, we do come to funerals with firm hope that this is true by the redeeming love of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, we believe that God is love, is all-holy, and is all-pure and nothing impure can enter God’s kingdom.  Jesus says, “…you must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

Our catechism (1031-1032) tells us that the Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory through the teachings of the Church fathers, The Councils of Florence and Trent, and the practice of praying for the dead, which we see in scripture when Judas Maccabeus prayed in order to atone for their sins (2 Macc 12:46).  The Church fathers often spoke of a purifying fire and most held that the fire is in some sense a material fire, though of a nature different from ordinary fire, but the opinion of other theologians who interpret the Scriptural term “fire” metaphorically has not been condemned by the Church and may now be the more common view. 

Origen, a great spiritual writer of the 6th century, puts this “fire” in perspective: "For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones (1 Cor 3), but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body?  Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no reward for your gold and silver and precious stones; neither is this just. It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood, and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works." (Origen, Homilies on Jeremias, PG 13:445, 448 (A.D. 244).

How can we help the souls being purified in purgatory?

Praying for the dead is a work of mercy and unites us with those who have gone before us.  Our church teaches that as long as we are saints, those destined for the kingdom or who are in the kingdom already, we have communion with one another.  In the Nicene Creed, we say that we believe in the “communion of saints”.  We, therefore, pray for the dead at every Mass and this enhances our experience of the Eucharist.  The catechism states, “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” (1032).  Saint John Chrysostom, a great preacher who lived in the 4th century offers us a perspective on this: “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 hesitiate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (CCC 1032). 

We can also remember the dead in prayer at meals, when saying the rosary, or by lighting a candle at church.  Let us always remember to pray for the dead.  May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace!

Father Tony