By Father Brian Morris
Q: Recently, a group of friends had a conversation involving Purgatory, and whether the Catholic Church still teaches that it is a reality. Some feel that Christ dying on the Cross for us is our salvation, clearing the way to eternal life in heaven. Others feel there has to be some purification from our sins before entering Heaven as the Catechism taught. Could you clear this up for us?
One of my seminary professors once quipped that all he wanted on his tombstone was that he got one toe in Purgatory. The four last things are death, judgement, heaven and hell and people often like to think about them. After all, there is a bit of a mystery to them. But where does Purgatory fit in? Purgatory is a temporary state of existence, unlike Heaven and Hell which are permanent states. The Catechism says: “The Church gives the name Purgatory to the final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC1031). The essential difference between the purification in Purgatory and the punishments of Hell is the virtue of hope, which is what my seminary professor was referring to in a tongue-in-cheek way. The souls who die and find themselves in Purgatory know that one day their suffering will end and they will be admitted into the kingdom of Heaven, that they will be spending an eternity of happiness with God.
The souls that find themselves in Hell have no hope of ever leaving that wretched state. The thing about Hell that makes it so hellish is that the souls who end up there have so corrupted themselves that they know that it is better for them to choose Heaven, and yet they eternally choose the fires of Hell anyway. The best analogy I’ve come up with is that it is like the drug addict who sees how the drugs he is addicted to are ruining his life, and yet he is so addicted to them that he cannot stop taking them. So too it is with any souls in Hell. They are addicted to their sinfulness. The Church does not definitively say that any particular person who has died is in Hell, for that would place a human limit on God’s mercy. So not Judas, not Hitler or Stalin or any other person who lived and committed evil things. The Church does, however, definitively state that certain persons are in Heaven, we call them saints.
About Purgatory, the Catechism says: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assure of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of Heaven.” (CCC 1030) I was once at a Theology on Tap event down in Virginia before I entered seminary and the speaker gave an interesting way of describing why God allows souls to go through Purgatory. He said that God is like any parent who tells their child to wash up before dinner. Purgatory is the soul “washing up” before the eternal banquet of Heaven. But it is also true that the souls that die in need of cleansing choose Purgatory on their own. Think of a woman on the way to her wedding. She’s in the back of the limo, about to pull up to the church and she finds a black spot right in the middle of her pure white dress. Wouldn’t she choose to have the driver drive a few laps around the church, delaying her wedding, until she can get that stain out? Wouldn’t she want to remove anything that would cause her entrance into her own wedding less than perfect? So too for the souls in Purgatory. They know that they have some earthly good or vice that is holding them back from fully enjoying the happiness of Heaven. And so they choose to wait it out until they are fully ready.
This is why we should always pray for the dead. Our prayers assist them in their cleansing of their souls. In the Middle Ages, some factions within the Church began selling “indulgences.” The tune went: “Every time a penny rings, a soul from Purgatory springs!” It was an abuse that needed to be corrected. And it ended up being one of the reasons Martin Luther and some of his fellow Protestant Reformers gave for leaving the Church. But the idea that we can help the souls of the dead with our prayers goes back to the Old Testament, particularly the Second Book of Maccabees, (12:39-46). The Jewish soldiers found that their comrades who had died in battle had sinned by wearing pagan amulets. So they offered up prayers and sacrifices that those fallen be forgiven their crime against the Lord.
This is the whole point of offering up a Mass intention for someone. Any prayer for a deceased person will bring them help, but the most powerful prayer in our Catholic arsenal is the Mass. So having a Mass said for someone is the highest thing that you can do for them. That is the main purpose of the funeral Mass. It is not just to commemorate the life of the deceased or to gather the family and friends to mourn. The chief purpose of the funeral Mass is to pray for the person who died. That their sins be forgiven and whatever good they’ve done and suffering they’ve endured bring them closer to Heaven. That is also why we have All Souls Day in November, to pray collectively for all those who have died. If there was no Purgatory, all those things would be useless. I for one am glad there is one. Although I certainly aim for Heaven, I see Purgatory as a kind of safety net, so that if I don’t quite get it all right by the time I am called to leave this life, I still have an opportunity to get through those pearly gates!
“Ask the Newly Ordained” features Fathers Brian Morris, Joseph Brice and Stephen Battey — who respond to questions about the faith from Rhode Island Catholic readers. Have a question? Ask the Newly Ordained! Readers may submit questions by sending them to Editor@thericatholic.com.