The Gift of Purgatory

We live in an age that has largely lost its sense of sin. Conduct that would have invited public scorn and repudiation in holier and saner eras earns fame and fortune today. The widespread popularity of entertainment and political personalities who actually flaunt their immorality supplies ample evidence to support our point.

The loss of the sense of sin, however, is not confined only to the world outside the Catholic Church. Even among the shrinking numbers who still attend church, virtually everyone seeks to receive Holy Communion, yet hardly anyone goes to confession. The attitude seems to be, “Why should I go to confession if I have nothing to confess?” Also, the liturgy employed at a funeral service — formerly so full of reminders that a departed soul could now be in either heaven, hell, or purgatory — has become a celebration of the deceased’s instant entrance into heaven.

It is only to be expected, therefore, that in the midst of the reigning everyone-goes-to-heaven mentality, God’s tremendous gift of purgatory would be forgotten. And what a gift it is ! Let us never forget that no one has a right to heaven, and that no one — save our Blessed and Immaculate Mother — is free from sin. Most of us, because of our own failings will die either with the stain of some sin on our souls, or with some punishment due to sin still to pay, or both. Had we no purgatory to cleanse us of our filth, we could never hope to enter into eternal bliss.

Always denied by most of those outside the One True Faith, purgatory’s importance is increasingly ignored within the Catholic Church today. Catholic doctrine concerning purgatory, like the truth about many other aspects of our holy Faith, could never have suffered such widespread suppression at the hands of external forces. It has taken enemies within the gates to cloud the thinking of the faithful about this precious gift.

One certain consequence of these developments is the virtual abandonment of many poor souls whose time in purgatory could be, and should be, shortened by the prayers and good works of those of us who still travel in this “vale of tears.” Especially can a soul in purgatory be helped by having Holy Mass offered for that purpose. But so few Catholics retain awareness of the efficacy of these pious practices, or even of the existence of purgatory itself, that little is done to help the faithful departed who are not condemned to hell, but who must suffer some punishment as a result of sins committed during their lives.

The Church Teaches

Among the infallible decrees of the dogmatic Second Council of Lyons in 1274 can be found the following clear and unmistakable teaching of the Church with regard to purgatory:

If those who are truly penitent die in charity before they have done sufficient penance for their sins of omission and commission, their souls are cleansed after death in purgatorial or cleansing punishments….The suffrages of the faithful on earth can be of great help in relieving these punishments, as, for instance, the Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, almsgiving, and other religious deeds which, in the manner of the Church, the faithful are accustomed to offer for others of the faithful.

Because this important doctrine on purgatory came under attack during the Protestant rebellion, the matter was again solemnly defined at the close of the Council of Trent in 1563:

Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the Sacred Writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught in sacred councils, and very recently in this oecumenical synod that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavour that the sound doctrine concerning Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be believed, maintained, taught and everywhere proclaimed by the faithful of Christ.

These mighty decrees, raised to the status of infallibility by the reigning Popes (Gregory X at Lyons II; St. Pius V at Trent), taught nothing new. What was proclaimed as unquestionable in these instances, as in the case of any infallible pronouncement, had been believed in its entirety throughout the history of the Church, even by the Apostles in their day.

Scripture Also Teaches

Divinely revealed Catholic Truths are derived either from Scripture or Tradition, or from both. Modern heretics hold that truth can be found only in the Bible — in whatever version of the Bible they choose, and always subject to whatever interpretation suits their fancy. But Christ gave us a Church possessing authority to speak in His name. Many of the Truths taught by the Catholic Church are indeed scripturally based. But some are not — the bodily Assumption into heaven of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for instance. Once this already widely held belief was solemnly proclaimed to be part of the Deposit of Faith by Pope Pius XII in 1950, there could no longer be any question about it. Refusal to believe it from that day amounted to setting oneself apart from God.

But, in the case of the existence of Purgatory, there are several scriptural passages that do indicate what the Church teaches:

And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come. (Matt. XII:32.)

Here, Saint Matthew tells us that a sin against the Holy Ghost can neither be forgiven “in this world, nor in the world to come.” Obviously, there are some sins that can be forgiven after death, and forgiveness after death is possible. Since it is also true that no one who has sin on his or her soul can enter heaven, there must be a place of cleansing after death and before heaven. This is what the Church calls purgatory. Among the great saints who have taught that this passage in Scripture proves the existence of purgatory are Saint Bernard, Saint Gregory, and Saint Isidore.

Be at agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him: lest perhaps the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing. (Matt. V:25-26.)

Here Saint Matthew teaches that we must act properly (without sin) while we are “in the way” (in via — making our way through life). If we stumble and are “cast into prison,” though not eternally damned, we cannot hope to leave until we “repay” God for our misdeeds. Saint Cyprian and Saint Ambrose have taught that this scriptural passage refers to purgatory.

And when thou goest with thy adversary to the prince, whilst thou art in the way, endeavor to be delivered from him: lest perhaps he draw thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the exacter, and the exacter cast thee into prison.

I say to thee, thou shalt not go out thence, until thou pay the very last mite. (Luke XII: 58-59.)

Using practically identical language, Saint Luke here teaches the same lesson as did Saint Matthew.

Every man’s work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is.

If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.

If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire. (I Cor. III: 13-15.)

Saint Paul concludes this passage by telling us that a soul can be saved “by fire.” This cannot occur in heaven where there is no suffering, nor in hell from which no one can be saved. Catholic teaching has always held that purgatory is a place of suffering, but also a place of joy because the souls who are there know that they will eventually be cleansed and welcomed into paradise. Many of the Church’s great teachers, especially Saint John Chrysostom, referred to this passage when teaching about purgatory.

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins. (II Mach. XII:46.)

From the last book of the Old Testament, we read of the heroic Machabees who remained faithful to their religion, which was the true Faith before Christ established the Catholic Church. The passage clearly refers to a way station on the journey to heaven where some souls are detained until “they are loosed from their sins.” It is “holy and wholesome” to pray for these souls, because doing so can speed their entry into heaven, but also because the souls whom we have helped will help us when they get to heaven, and are even able to help us with their prayers while they are in purgatory.

It is quite revealing of the hateful destructiveness of the Protestant reformers that their incredibly arrogant revision of Holy Scripture deleted, among other portions of the Bible, the two books of the Machabees. Catholic Bibles contain this clearest of scriptural references to purgatory. Others do not. It is hardly surprising that those who have separated from the One True Church deny the existence of purgatory.

Testimony of the Saints Many saints of the Catholic Church were privileged to be shown firsthand the existence of purgatory, as well as many details about it. Catholics everywhere are indebted to Father F. X. Shouppe, S.J. for his extensive compilation of these experiences. Written in 1893 in the language of his native France, Father Shouppe’s Purgatory was quickly translated into English.

Saint Teresa had great charity toward the holy souls in purgatory, assisting them as much as she was able with prayers and good works. God frequently permitted her to see the fruits of her efforts, showing her numerous souls as they were released from their sufferings. One such instance, related by Saint Teresa, is quoted by Father Shouppe as follows:

A Religious of my community, a great servant of God, had been dead not quite two days. We were saying the Office for the Dead for her in choir, as sister was reading the lesson, and I was standing to say the versicle. When half of the lesson had been said, I saw the soul of this Religious come forth from the depths of the earth…and go to Heaven.

Saint Frances of Rome not only saw purgatory but visited it, witnessed the souls who suffered there, and told of its three regions. She also visited hell, saw its frightening torments, and reported of its horror, disorder, despair and eternal darkness. Of purgatory, she reported none of hell’s finality, but instead told of divine hope and of souls that suffered greatly but were assisted by angels to withstand their torments.

Saint Frances further identified three separate areas of purgatory where souls had been placed in proportion to the time required to atone for their sins. Lower purgatory is filled with fire, though not a dark fire as in hell. Intermediate purgatory possesses three chambers containing either ice, boiling oil or molten metal. And she further related the existence of an upper purgatory where souls that are closest to deliverance suffer only the pain of loss.

Saint Magdalen de Pazzi was taken on a trip through purgatory. She saw the different forms of torture being endured by those who had committed such sins as disobedience, lying, avarice, impurity, pride and ingratitude to God. After witnessing so many varied horrors, she begged God not to ask her to endure it again. But she knew that God’s purpose had been to have her become vibrantly aware of how abominable is even the least sin in the eyes of God.

Similar experience recounted by dozens of saints fill Father Shouppe’s marvelous work. They all help us to know what awaits those of us who are fortunate enough and wise enough to pass from this earth free of mortal sin. But the book is at least equally valuable for the repetition of the efficacy of prayer and good works, especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, when offered for a soul in purgatory. Saint Elizabeth of Portugal was miraculously informed that her deceased daughter, Constance, was languishing in the depths of purgatory and was in great need of Holy Masses being offered for her deliverance. At the conclusion of the required number, Constance appeared to her clad in a brilliant white robe and announced that she was on her way to heaven.

Father Shouppe tells of other saints who were privileged to know of the help their deeds provided for the souls suffering in purgatory. These deeds included prayer, the rosary, fasting, Holy Communion, stations of the Cross, gaining indulgences, giving alms, and performing good works. The wise Catholic makes good use of every day to assist the souls in purgatory.

The admirable Cure of Ars, Saint John Marie Vianney, a great champion of the holy souls, once told a fellow priest: “Oh! if it were but known how great is the power of the good souls in purgatory with the Heart of God, and if we knew all the graces we can obtain through their intercession, they would not be so much forgotten. We must, therefore, pray much for them, that thev may Pray much for us.”

Let us all become determined to offer our own prayers and good works, and to have Masses and prayers offered for the holy souls in purgatory. And let us also do what we are able to spread such doubly beneficial practices. If we do our part, our age that has largely lost its sense of sin could be transformed into the age when purgatory was largely emptied. Through such efforts, we can speed other souls to heaven, and earn our own place alongside those we helped, with God for ever and ever.