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What is Purgatory?
For those who die in a state of friendship with God, but are imperfectly purified, there is Purgatory.
Purgatory is a state of final purification after death, and before entrance into Heaven. Purgatory is the word the Church uses to describe this state of being. While the exact word Purgatory is not used in the Bible, several Bible passages refer to this state of purification. (This is the same as with many other doctrines such as the Trinity and Incarnation, which are the foundation of Christian doctrine.)
To understand Purgatory, it is important to know what happens after we die. At the moment of death, we undergo something called "particular judgement." There are three possible outcomes to this judgement. Based on a person's faith and life, they may go to Heaven, to Purgatory, or to Hell. The choice of fate is up to the individual.
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love Him. But if we choose to separate ourselves from God, then it is clear we do not love Him. All sin is separation from God, no matter how minor we think it is, all sin separates us. Sin is always the result of choices, and when we make choices that harm our relationship with God, we are rejecting His offer of eternal salvation. When we sin, we are literally choosing to exclude ourselves from communion with God.
While all sins separate us from God, some sins are particularly serious. We call these sins, mortal sins. The Apostle John spoke of sins which lead to spiritual death. This is what the word mortal means.
A mortal sin is a grave offense against God, that destroys the divine life within the sinner. For a sin to be considered mortal, it must meet three conditions. The matter must be grave, meaning it must violate God's Commandments. The sinner must have full knowledge their choice is evil. And they must choose of their own free-will to commit the sin.
To these criteria we may add a final condition, a person must refuse to repent and accept God's mercy and love, to the end of their lives. These persons have made a deliberate choice to separate themselves from God. Out of respect for their free will, God will not force them to live in communion with Him. They have chosen Hell, a place of eternal separation from God.
To be clear, Hell is chosen. It is not a state of being into which a person falls by accident.
In the Bible, Hell is often referred to as a state or place of "unquenchable fire," but nobody is certain what Hell is like. The Church only knows that the souls in Hell are forever separated from God. Since God created our souls for communion with Him, this separation must be terrible. And since it is without hope of salvation, it must be the worst possible fate a soul can endure.
Fortunately, we can avoid this fate through frequent reception of the Sacrament of Penance and if possible, obtaining our last rites on our deathbed. We do not know when we may die, so we must always be prepared.
For those who die without sin; those who die as martyrs, a witness to God, and those who die in a state of grace and friendship with God, they go to Heaven.
Heaven is a state of eternal communion with Jesus Christ.Â Like Purgatory, is not a place, but a state of being. It is a state of supreme and definitive happiness. There we are in communion with the Trinity, and all the blessed. It is the deepest, most longed-for goal of our soul.
The Church recognizes many people as being in Heaven. It calls those people saints. A saint is any person who is in Heaven. They have reached their final goal. But the word also simply means "the holy ones" and is used to refer to all Christians in the bible.
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But what about the rest of us? Those who us who do not give our lives as faithful witnesses, or in martyrdom, those of us who die in a state of some imperfection, with unrepentant sins.
Not all sins are mortal. Most sins are venial sins. They can be anything from unjust anger, to pride, to an unkindness to another person, such as a stranger. Countless misdeeds qualify as venial sins.
If we die with venial sin on our soul, we cannot enter Heaven unless we are first cleansed. No sin can abide in the presence of God. For us, there is Purgatory. While it may sound disappointing to have to wait, the good news is, all who enter Purgatory eventually enter Heaven.
Purgatory is a state of being, rather than a place. It is a state of waiting, and because we are delayed entry into Heaven, there is a degree of suffering. But is not like the suffering of Hell. The Scriptures do refer to a cleansing fire, but fire is also a symbol of the Spirit. But we should take comfort knowing this suffering is nothing like the suffering of Hell, which is unquenchable.
Souls in Purgatory are cleansed, or purified, through the prayers of the faithful on Earth. That is because all the Baptized are joined in communion. The intercession of the saints already in Heaven is effective, the saints can pray for us. Eventually, these prayers and intercessions aid the purification of our souls. At that time, we will enter Heaven.
The Church draws upon scripture for this knowledge as well as the tradition and teachings of the Jewish faith from the time of Jesus, the Apostles, and the writings of the early Church fathers.
Of course, all this can be avoided by loving God and our neighbors as we love ourselves. And by frequent reception of the Sacraments, including the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation. Through Reconciliation, we are born anew; a new creation in Christ. We get a new start, even if we have obtained reconciliation many times before. There is no limit to God's mercy.
Purgatory exists because God is merciful and He loves us. He wants each soul to live in perfect union with Him. So long as we choose God through our faith and our works, we will enjoy Heaven, even if it takes us a little more time to arrive.
Purgatory Apologetics: Does Purgatory Exist?
Catholics sometimes face questions about Purgatory from other Christians. Where is it found in the Bible? Why do Catholics believe in this state of being after death?
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The Bible does not mention Purgatory by that name, but this should not be a cause for concern. Key Christian beliefs, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation are not mentioned by that name in the Bible. Yet, they are the foundation of Christian doctrine.
The Hebrew Scriptures, or what Christians call the Old Testament, contains several passages where the Lord's people pray for their dead. This gesture would be useless if the dead went straight to Heaven or Hell.
In the book of 2nd Maccabees, the priest, Judas Maccabeus leads the people in prayers for the dead. The purpose of those prayers was to ask forgiveness of the sins of those who fell during battle. (2 Maccabees 12)
In the Book of Sirach there is another passage, "do not withhold kindness even from the dead." (Sirach 7:33)
Even today, the Jewish people pray for the dead.
The Church teaches Purgatory is a state of being. In this state, we are purified of sins so we may enter Heaven. It is a merciful state, and all souls in Purgatory enter Heaven. Heaven is a state of perfect communion with Jesus Christ.
This state is important, because no sin may abide in God's presence.
Jesus implied that venial sins will be forgiven in the next life.Â He said, "And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." (Matt 12:32)
Note, "In the age to come."
Jesus built upon the common belief of His time, that some sins are pardoned after death.
In the New Testament, St. Paul prays for Onesiphorus, who is dead. (2 Tim. 1:16-18)
The Early Church fathers also referred to prayers for the dead.
The first Christians, those closest to the Apostles and to Jesus Christ prayed for the dead. They believed in a state of purification.
The Church repeatedly affirmed belief in Purgatory in her councils. Purgatory was affirmed at the Council of Lyons in 1274. That affirmation was repeated at the Council of Florence (1431-1449). And, in response to the Protestant Reformation, it was explicitly reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563).
In fact, belief in Purgatory was not seriously questioned until the Indulgence Controversy of the sixteenth century. Sadly, it was used as one of the justifications for the Protestant Reformation.
To understand indulgences, Catholics must first understand that the Church is the Body of Christ. Jesus Christ is the Head and the Church is His Body. He continues His ministry through His Church. It is the Lord Himself, Jesus the High Priest, who continues His ministry through the Sacraments. Every priest stands in Christ the Head.
Catholics must also understand that sin has two kinds of consequences, temporal and eternal. Reconciliation eliminates the eternal consequence of sin and saves us from Hell. But it does not remove the temporal, or temporary, consequences. In other words, the sins forgiven by reconciliation must still be purified. This happens through penance in this life, or in Purgatory. Remember, Purgatory is a state of ongoing purification after death.
The Church has the power to bind and loose sins. (Matt 16:19) And the Church has at its disposal the limitless charity of the saints, combined with the fullness of God's grace. With this authority, it can grant what is called an "indulgence." An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven.
This is one purpose of the Church. Jesus established the Church to minister to our needs. And this is one way He empowered the Church.
The Catholic Catechism explains, "The Church, as a minister of the redemption won by Christ, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints." (CCC 1471) This means the Church may dispense indulgences. An indulgence reduces or eliminates altogether the temporal punishment of sin. An indulgence may be applied to a living person, or to the soul of the departed.
Belief in indulgences is part of the Church's tradition. Like Purgatory, it comes from many sources. Those include, Sacred Scripture, the practice of the Jewish people, and the early Church fathers. In the Bible, there are many instances of temporal punishments for those who sin. There are also examples of rewards granted to people for the good deeds of others. And the Church has affirmed this understanding. We are joined together in an inseparable communion.
The Church may grant indulgences through a variety of means, such as through a Jubilee. A jubilee is a period dedicated to the forgiveness of sins and debts. (Leviticus 25:8-10) The practice dates back to the time of ancient Israel. The Church still decrees Jubilee years every twenty-five years and may decree an extraordinary jubilee, as Pope Francis did in 2015. The Church may also grant indulgences to people who perform various works of devotion or penance.
In the early Church, penance was often severe. A lapsed Christian might suffer temporary banishment from the community, or a mandatory period of fasting. The practice of excommunication (to place outside of the communion) was meant to be remedial for the sinner. (See, 1 Cor. 5:5) Some of the penances applied to a repentant sinner in the practice of the early Church could last for as long as two years.
In the sixth century, the Church began to standardize penances for sins, while allowing exceptions based on a person's age and strength. It permitted some people to reduce their penance through prayers, alms, and fasting. In the centuries that followed, people could obtain indulgences with pilgrimages.
One notable example was the declaration of an indulgence by Pope Urban II at the Council of Claremont. The Pope declared a plenary indulgence would be granted to any person who confessed their sins and joined the Crusade. A plenary indulgence is one that applies not only to earthly punishments, but to Purgatory as well.
By the late medieval period, indulgences became a popular means by which a person could reduce their penance, or the penance of those in Purgatory. In some cases, indulgences were simply sold, like any other commodity in a market. But this was an abuse of the practice, and it had severe consequences.
The Church attempted to reform the practice of selling indulgences. But the practice had become so widespread and popular, the Church had limited success. It was the sale of indulgences, which offended Martin Luther, and understandably so. It was abused, becoming another form of simony, the buying or selling of spiritual things which have God alone as their owner and master. (Acts 8:20, CCC # 2121)
Martin Luther was a Catholic priest, Augustinian monk, and professor who decided the entire practice of indulgences should be eliminated. He viewed the practice as complicated and problematic. And while these initial opinions were based on good evidence, his overzealous effort quickly went astray. There were other reformers whose actions did not split the Church. But Martin Luther chose a different path, one with terrible consequences.
In 1517, Martin Luther wrote a list of 95 objections he had to Church teaching and practices. He called his list the "95 Theses" and posted it on the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral. The purpose of this posting was to invite fellow Catholic scholars into debate. However, at some point immediately thereafter, his 95 Theses was translated into German. Copies were made with a printing press. They were widely distributed, causing confusion and scandal.
Church authorities moved to quell the growing scandal, but Martin Luther did little to help. Some would posit that he contributed to the growing crisis through his words and actions. The Pope requested that Luther retract some of his statements, but he refused. Eventually, he was arrested and brought to trial for heresy and convicted. He was labeled an outlaw.
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Luther was rescued from punishment by a German duke who has his own quarrel with the authorities of the time. The advance of the Protestant Reformation was due more to politics than theology.
Today, discussion of Purgatory and indulgences is sometimes avoided because both beliefs remain a source of contention between Catholics and Protestants. Few Catholics understand these ancient practices and some priests, deacons, and catechists do not discuss them because they can be difficult to explain. Catholics and Protestants have much more in common than not, so it is easier to disregard the subject than to bring it up for discussion in the present age.
But belief in this merciful state we call Purgatory is part of what it is to be Catholic. The Church teaches what is true. This has always been its guiding principle, and the reason why the Church has flourished and become, by far, the largest Christian Church and religious denomination in the world.
Through knowledge, devotion, and grace, we can experience and enjoy the fullness of our faith and life everlasting.
Purgatory in Catholic Practice
Catholic practice reflects the existence of Purgatory, a state of purification upon death. Catholics pray for the dead at each Mass. During the intercessions, the priest explains the Mass is offered for both the living and the dead.
For the recently deceased, Mass is offered. During the funeral rites, the faithful offer other additional prayers.
The faithful often dedicate Masses to the dead. It is common for each Mass to be dedicated to one or more departed persons.
Catholics often say prayers for their departed loved ones, as part of their daily prayers. Candles may be lit in Churches and dedicated to the beloved dead. Catholics may request prayers for the dead from their parish community. They may undertake special devotions and dedicate their prayerful work to the dead.
The most visible Catholic practices happen between October 31st though November 2nd. During this period, Catholics gather to pray for all the departed. They ask the intercession of the saints. And they commemorate the lives of their departed loved ones.
The name "Halloween" is derived from the term "All Hallows Eve." Hallows refers to the saints, since they are hallowed or holy. The following day, November 1, is All Saints' Day.
Historically, the last day of October was a pagan holiday. In the Celtic tradition, the day was called "Samhain," and it served as a new year holiday.
Meanwhile, the Romans had their own celebration for the dead in late October. They also had a macabre holiday each May called "Lemuria," in which it was believed the spirits of evil ancestors would arise and had to be placated.
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Church leaders began converting pagan holidays in order to evangelize the culture. The pagan celebrations for the dead in May became All Saints' Day. Pope Gregory III later moved these celebrations and established November 1 as the official All Saints' Day in the 8th century. He also established All Souls' Day on November 2nd. In this way, the Roman and Celtic pagan traditions were converted and combined into a single, Christian day.
Despite the Christian holiday, people kept many of the ancient traditions going. They lit bonfires and dressed in costumes. They simply adapted these traditions to their Catholic belief. Most dressed as saints and angels, some as devils. Though in dressing as a devil they intended it as a sign of spiritual warfare against evil and not the glorification of evil.
In some traditions, children would dress as saints on Halloween. They would go door-to-door seeking prayers and alms. In other traditions, bands of children would sing or perform tricks for a coin or a treat.
Halloween was primarily a Catholic observance until the early 20th century. In the United States, the Catholic holiday became popular, but with the popularity, it became secular. And in some instances, quite sadly, readopted pagan symbolism and rejected the Christian traditions.
Parties and parades became common in the 1920's. As it secularized, some turned it into an occasion for mischief. Vandalism and violence were routine.
Communities adopted various measures to quell the vandalism. Celebrations were moved into schools and homes where they could be overseen by responsible adults. By doing this, they focused the holiday on children. By the early 1950's, trick-or-treating became common. Children looked forward to the holiday as an occasion to hoard candy. Its religious significance was wiped out by marketing and sugar.
Recently, Catholic and some other Christian leaders have encouraged Catholics and other Christians to reclaim the holiday. Dressing as saints and angels instead of devils emphasizes the triumph of good over evil. The triumph of Heaven over Hell, the triumph of Jesus Christ over Satan and the demons. In fact, the Church today finds itself where it was in the seventh century, having to convert pagan holidays.
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While secular culture has occupied and too often debased Halloween, All Saints' Day has remained distinctly Catholic and Christian. All Saints' Day is a solemn, Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics. The faithful are required to attend Mass.
The day is dedicated to the saints of the Church, that is those who have attained Heaven. On this day, Catholics ask the saints in Heaven to intercede for their departed ancestors. Christians in need may ask others to pray for them. Likewise, we can ask the saints to pray for us too. Doing so is powerful, because the saints are already in Heaven. Since they are in communion with God and in Jesus Christ in communion with all of us, their prayers have merit. This is one aspect of the doctrine of the communion of saints. Not even death can separate us in Christ. (Romans 8: 35-39)
Catholics believe this is also an important way to help those in Purgatory to become purified, and attain final beatitude in Heaven. Our prayers assist them.
The following day is All Souls' Day. This day is not a Holy Day of Obligation, but many faithful Catholics attend Mass on this day as well.
All Souls' Day is dedicated to those in Purgatory. Catholics offer prayers for their loved ones who have departed. They may also pray for their ancestors and all who have died. They especially pray for those who have recently passed. Catholics often light candles, visit graves, and leave flowers to honor the dead.
In recent decades, the three-days spanning October 31 through November 2, has become something more. The Mexican tradition of "Dia de los Muertos," also known as the "Day of the Dead," has become popular. The tradition is kept in Mexico and much of Latin America, and is spreading globally.
Those who celebrate the Day of the Dead, should still keep the Catholic observances. However, they dedicate November 1 to children, in addition to the saints. It makes sense, for children are the most innocent among us, and perhaps the most likely to be saints.
On this day, parents visit their children's graves, and may leave offerings of toys. There are few actual festivities because this is a solemn occasion.
November 2 is the official Day of the Dead, and on this day the graves of other family members are visited. Families repair graves, light candles, and leave offerings of food. They may play music at the grave. People also erect altars in their homes and places of business.
The Church affirms the knowledge of the existence of Purgatory. This knowledge is reflected in the practice of the faithful. The Church calls us to a solemn thanksgiving. The existence of Purgatory is not an occasion for sorrow. Purgatory is a merciful state, and all who enter Purgatory will enter Heaven.
As Catholics we should be thankful we have a Church which remains faithful to all the gifts and knowledge given to us by the Lord, taught by his Church and passed down by Christian tradition.