Catholic History


A PLACE in which souls who depart this life in the grace of God suffer for a time because they still need to be cleansed from venial, or have still to pay the temporal punishment due to mortal sins, the guilt and the eternal punishment of which have been remitted. Purgatory is not a place of probation, for the time of trial. The period during which the soul is free to choose eternal life or eternal death, ends with the separation of soul and body. All the souls in Purgatory have died in the love of God, and are certain to enter heaven. But as yet they are not pure and holy enough to see God, and God's mercy allots them a place and a time for cleansing and preparation. At last Christ will come to judge the world, and then there will be only two places left, heaven and hell.

The Councils of Florence ("Decret. Unionis") and Trent ("Decret. de Purgat." sess. xxv.; cf. sess. vi. can. 30, sess. xxii. "De Sacrific. Miss." c. 2 et can. 3), define "that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls detained there are helped by the prayers of the faithful and, above all, by the acceptable sacrifice at the altar." Further the definitions of the Church do not go, but the general teaching of the theologians explains the doctrine of the councils, and embodies the general sentiment of the faithful. Theologians, then, tell us that souls after death are cleansed from the stain of their venial sins by turning with fervent love to God and by detestation of those offenses which marred, though they did not entirely destroy, their union with him. St. Thomas and Suarez hold that this act of fervent love and perfect sorrow is made in the first instant of the soul's separation from the body, and suffices of itself to remove all the stain of sin. (See the quotation in Jungmann, "De Novissimis" p. 103.) Be this as it may, it is certain that the time of merit expires with this life, and that the debt of temporal punishment may still be paid. The souls in Purgatory suffer the pain of loss i. e. they are in anguish because their past sins exclude them for a season from the sight of God, and they understand in a degree previously impossible the infinite bliss from which they are excluded, and the foulness of the least offense against the God who has created and redeemed them. They also undergo "the punishment of sense" i. e. positive pains which afflict the soul. It is the common belief of the Western Church that they are tormented by material fire, and it is quite conceivable that God should give matter the power of constraining and afflicting even separated souls. But the Greeks have never accepted this belief, nor was it imposed upon them when they returned to Catholic unity at Florence. The saints and doctors of the Church describe these pains as very terrible. They last, no doubt, for very different lengths of time, and vary in intensity according to the need of individual cases. It is supposed that the just who are alive when Christ comes again, and who stand in need of cleansing, will be purified in some extraordinary way e. g. by the troubles of the last days, by vehement contrition, etc.; but all this is mere conjecture. In conclusion, it must be remembered that there is a bright as well as a dark side to Purgatory. The souls there are certain of their salvation, they are willing sufferers, and no words, according to St. Catherine of Genoa, can express the joy with which they are filled, as they increase in union with God. She says their joy can be compared to nothing except to the greater joy of Paradise itself. (See for numerous citations, Jungmann, "De Noviss." cap. I, a. 6.)

This may suffice as an account of theological teaching on the subject. It must not be supposed that any such weight belongs to legends and speculations which abound in medieval chronicles (see Maskell, "Monument. Rit." vol. ii. p. lxxi.), and which often appear in modern, books. The Council of Trent (sees. xxv. Decret. de Purgat.) while it enjoins bishops to teach "the sound doctrine of Purgatory, handed down by the holy Fathers and councils," bids them refrain "in popular discourses" from those "more difficult and subtle questions which do not tend to edification," and "to prohibit the publication and discussion of things which are doubtful or even appear false."

Scripture, it may be justly said, points to the existence of Purgatory. There is no fellowship between the darkness of sin and selfishness and God, "in whom there is no darkness at all," so that the degree of our purity is the measure of our union with God here on earth. Perfect sinlessness is needed that we may see God face to face. When God appears "we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." "Every man who hath this hope in him purifieth himself, as He is pure" (1 John iii. a, 3). Without holiness "no man shall see the Lord " (Heb. xii. 14). This work of inner cleansing may be affected by our correspondence with grace. We sow as we reap: deeds of humility increase humility; works of love deepen the love of God and man in the soul. Often, too, God's mercy in this life weans the soul from the love of the world, and affliction may be a special mark of his compassion. "Whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom he receives" (Heb. x. 6) He disciplines us "for our good, that we may participate in his sanctity" (ib. 10) Now, it is plain that in the case of many good people this discipline has not done its work when death overtakes them. Many faults, e. g. of bad temper, vanity, and the like, and infirmity consequent on more serious sins of which they have repented, cleave to them still. Surely, then, the natural inference is that their preparation for heaven is completed after death. By painful discipline in this world or the next God finishes the work in them which He has begun, and perfects it "unto the day of Jesus Christ " (Phil. i. 6).

We would appeal to those general principles of Scripture rather than to particular texts often alleged in proof of Purgatory. We doubt if they contain an explicit and direct reference to it. St. Paul (I Cor. iii. 10) speaks of some who will be saved "yet as through fire," but he seems to mean the fire in which Christ is to appear at the last. He himself, he says, has established the Corinthian church on the only possible foundation viz. Jesus Christ. Others have built it up from this foundation, or, in other words, have developed the Christian faith and life of its members. These teachers, however, must take care how they build, even on the one foundation. "Each man's work will be made manifest, for the day will show it, because it [the day of judgment] is revealed in fire, and the fire will test each man's work of what kind it is: if any man's work which he has built up [on the foundation] remains, he will receive a reward; if any man's work is burnt down he will suffer loss [i. e. he will forfeit the special reward and glory of good teachers], but he himself will be saved, but so as through fire." The man who has built up with faulty material is depicted as still working at the building when the fire of Christ's coming seizes it and he himself escapes, but only as a man does from a house of fire, leaving the work which is consumed behind him. St. Paul, if we have caught his meaning, speaks of the end of the world, not of the time between death and judgment, and so, we think, does our Lord in Matt, xii. 32. The sin against the Holy Ghost, he tells us, will not be forgiven, either "in this age" (en toutoi toi aioni) i. e. in the world which now is, or in the future age (en toi mellonti) i. e. in the new world, or rather new period which is to be ushered in by the coming of the Messias in glory. There is no hope of forgiveness here or hereafter for the sin against the Holy Ghost, but it does not follow, and, granting our interpretation, it would be inconsistent with Catholic doctrine to believe, that other sins may be forgiven in the age to come. Thus, "the age to come" would have precisely same sense as the corresponding Hebrew words (* * * * * * see, e. g., "Pirke Avoth," cap. 4, and for many other instances Buxtorf, "Lex Rabbin. et Chald." sub voc. * * *), which is in itself a strong argument, and the meaning we have given is fully supported by New Testament usage (see particularly tou aionos ekeinou tuchein, Luc. xx. 35, and sunteleia tou aionos. Matt. xiii. 39, 40, 49, xxiv. 3, xxviii. 20 decisive passages, as we venture to think). Maldonatus decidedly rejects the supposed allusion to Purgatory in Matt. v. 25, 26. "Be well disposed to thine adversary [i. e. the offended brother] quickly, even till thou art on the way with him [i. e. it is never too soon, and never, till life is over, too late, to be reconciled], lest the adversary hand thee over to the judge, and the judge hand thee over to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Amen. I say unto thee thou shalt not go out thence till thou shalt pay the last farthing." Maldonatus follows St. Augustine in the opinion that the "last farthing" will never and can never be paid, and that the punishment is eternal. Just in the same way it is said of the unmerciful slave (Luc. xviii. 34), that he was to be handed over to the tormentors "till he should pay all the debt." Yet a slave could never pay so enormous a sum as 10,000 talents. "Semper solvet, sed nunquam persolvet," "He will always pay, but never pay off," is the happy comment of Remigius (and so Chrysostom and Augustine; see Trench, "Parables," p. 164). The reader will find the various interpretations of these texts fairly discussed in Estius and Maldonatus or in Meyer. Dollinger, however ("First Age of the Church," p. 249), sees an "unmistakable reference" to Purgatory in Matt. xii. 32, v. 26.

In two special ways, writers of the early Church, as Cardinal Newman points out ("Development," p. 385 seq.), were led to formulate the belief in Purgatory. In the articles on the sacrament of Penance, we have shown the strength of primitive belief in the need of satisfaction for sin by painful works, and in the article on Penance the rigor with which satisfaction was exacted. Indeed, the belief in Purgatory lay dormant in the primitive Church to a certain extent, just because the fervor of the first Christians was so vehement, just because the severity of penance here might well be thought to exclude the need of purifying discipline after death. But what was to be thought of those who were reconciled on their deathbed before their penance was ended or even begun, or in whom outward penance for some cause or other had failed to do the whole of its work? Clement of Alexandria supplies a clear answer to this question: "Even if a man passes out of the flesh, he must put off his passions, ere he is able to enter the eternal dwelling, . . . . through much discipline, therefore stripping off his passions, our faithful man will go to the mansion which is better than the former, bearing in the special penance which appertains to him (idioma tes metanois) a very great punishment for the sins he has committed after baptism." ("Strom." vi. 14, p. 794, ed. Potter.) He speaks of the angels "who preside over the ascent" of souls as detaining those who have preserved any worldly attachment (iv. 18, p. 616), and with at least a possible reference to Purgatory, of fire as purifying sinful souls (vii. 6, p. 851). The genuine and contemporary Acts of St. Perpetua, who suffered under Septimius Severus at the very beginning of the third century, plainly imply the belief in Purgatory. The saint, according to part of the Acts written by herself, saw in a vision her brother who was dead, and for whom she had prayed. He was suffering, and she went on praying. Then she beheld him in another and more cheerful vision, and "knew that he was translated from his place of punishment" (de poena; Ruinart, "Act. Mart. S. Perpet." etc., vii. viii.). Cyprian (Ep. lv. 20), in answer to the objection that the relaxation of penitential discipline in the case of the lapsed would weaken the courage and stability which made martyrs, insists that after all the position of one who had fallen away and then been admitted to martyrdom would always be much less desirable than that of a martyr. "It is one thing for a man to be cast into prison and not to leave it till he pay the last farthing, another thing to receive at once the reward of faith and virtue; one thing to be tormented long with sorrow for sins, to be purified and cleansed for a long time by the fire, another to purge away all sins by martyrdom." Cardinal Newman urges that these words, especially "missum in carcerem" "purgari diu igne," "seem to go beyond" a mere reference to penitential discipline in this life, and the Benedictine editor is of the same mind.

Next, we can prove the early date of belief in Purgatory from the habit of praying for the dead, a habit which the Church inherited from the Synagogue. The words in 2 Macc. xii. 42 seq. are familiar to everybody. Judas found hieromata or things consecrated to idols, under the garments of those who had been slain in battle against Gorgias. Whereupon he made a collection of money and sent to Jerusalem, "to offer sacrifice for sin, doing very well and excellently, reasoning about the dead. For unless he had expected those who had fallen before [the others] to rise again, it would have been superfluous and absurd to pray for the dead. Therefore seeing well [emblepon] that a most fair reward is reserved for those who sleep in piety, his design was holy and pious, whence he made the propitiation for the dead that they might be loosed from sin." (This sentence is, of course, ungrammatical; but so is the Greek. A part of 2 Macc. is more like rough notes than a finished composition.) This passage implies a belief both in Purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the departed, and takes for granted that this belief would be held by all who believed in the resurrection. This is not the place to discuss the canonical or even the historical character of the book. It represents a school of Judaic belief at the time, and we know from xv. 37, that it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem. Second Maccabees was composed in Greek, but we have the fullest evidence from Hebrew and Chaldee sources that the later Judeans prayed for the dead and recognized the need of purification after death. Weber ("Altsynag. Palast. Theol." p. 326 seq.) thus sums up the Rabbinical doctrine: "Only a few are sure of [immediate] entrance into heaven; the majority are at their death still not ripe for heaven, and yet will not be absolutely excluded from it. Accordingly, we are referred to a middle state, a stage between death and eternal life, which serves for the final perfecting." Those who were not perfectly just here suffer "the pain of fire, and the fire is their penance." The "Pesikta," a very ancient commentary on sections of the law and prophets, composed at the beginning of the third century after Christ, describes the penance as Lasting usually twelve months, of which six are spent in extreme heat, six in extreme cold. The common Rabbinical doctrine that Israelites, except those guilty of some special sins, do at last enter heaven, and the fantastical shapes which the Jewish doctrine of Purgatory has assumed, do not concern us here. But it is well to observe that the Jews have never ceased to pray for their dead. The following is from the prayer said at the house of mourners, as given in a modern Jewish prayerbook, issued with authority: "May our reading of the law and our prayer be acceptable before Thee for the soul of N. Deal with it according to the great mercy, opening to it the gates of compassion and mercy and the gates of the garden of Eden, and receive it in love and favor; send thy holy angels to it to conduct it, and give it rest beneath the Tree of Life." (* * * "Meditation of Isaac," a Jewish prayer book according to the German and Polish rite, pp. 336, 337).

Against the Jewish custom and doctrine Christ and His Apostles made no protest, though both custom and doctrine existed in their time. Nay, "St. Paul himself [cf. 2 Tim. i. 1618 with iv. I8] gives an example of such a prayer. The Ephesian Onesiphorus, mentioned in the Second Epistle to St. Timothy, was clearly no longer among the living. St. Paul praises this man for his constant service to him, but does not, as elsewhere, send salutations to him, but only to his family; for him he desires a blessing from the Lord, and prays for him that the Lord will grant he may find mercy with Christ at the day of judgment." The words in inverted commas are from Dollinger's "First Age of the Church," p. 251; but many Protestant commentators, among whom we may mention De Wette and Huther, who is eminent among recent commentators on the Pastoral Epistles, lean to the same interpretation.

All this considered, it cannot seem strange that every ancient liturgy contains prayers for the dead. To understand the strength of this argument we must remember that these liturgies are written in many different languages, and represent the practice in every part of the ancient world. The very first Christian who has left Latin writings, speaks of "oblations for the dead" as a thing of course (Tertull. "De Coron." 3). It is often said that prayers for the dead do not necessarily imply belief in Purgatory, and this is true. The words, e. g. in the Clementine liturgy, "We offer to Thee for all thy saints who have pleased Thee from ancient days, patriarchs, prophets, just men apostles, martyrs, confessors, bishops, presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, readers, singers, virgins, widows, laymen, and all whose name Thou knowest," do not imply that those for whom the sacrifice is offered are in a state of suffering. But Tertullian ("Monog." 10) connects prayer for the dead with Purgatory when he says of a woman who has lost her husband that "she prays for his soul, and supplicates for him refreshment [refrigerium], and a part in the first resurrection, and offers on the anniversaries of his death [dormitionis]."So, too St. Cyril of Jerusalem ("Mystagog." 5): "If when a king had banished certain who had given him offense, their connections should weave a crown and offer it to him on behalf of those under his vengeance, would he not grant a respite to their punishments? In the same manner we, when we offer to Him our supplications for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners, weave no crown, but offer up Christ sacrificed for our sins, propitiating our merciful God, both for them and for ourselves." Still the doctrine was not fully established in the West till the time of Gregory the Great. Some of the Greeks conceived that all, however perfect, must pass through fire in the next world. So, e. g., Origen, "In Num." Hom. xxv. 6. "In Ps. xxvi." Hom. iii. I. St. Augustine had indeed the present doctrine of Purgatory clearly before his mind, but had no fixed conviction on the point. In his work `'De VIII. Dulcitii Quaestionibus" (§ 13), written about 420, he says it is "not incredible" that imperfect souls will be "saved by some purgatorial fire," to which they will be subjected for varying lengths of time according to their needs.

A little later, in the "De Civitate," he expresses his belief in Purgatory as if he were certain (xxi. 13), or nearly so (xx. 25), but again speaks doubtfully (xxi. 26, "forsitan verum est") and in the "Enchiridion" (69). Very different is Gregory's tone: "ante judicium purgatorius ignis credendus est" ("Dial." iv. 39).

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