Purgatory is perhaps one of the most misunderstood Catholic doctrines today, and many do not believe that it actually exists. In this article, I’m briefly going to cover what purgatory is, the biblical basis for purgatory, and the history of the teaching on purgatory in the Catholic Church. I will not specifically cover in information prayer for the dead or indulgences, which you can read about here:
WHAT IS PURGATORY?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), purgatory is a “final purification” (CCC 1031) which is afforded to “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” so that they might “attain the holiness necessary to experience the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).
This is the reason why the souls in purgatory are called “Holy Souls” . . . they have died in God’s grace and they will attain heaven and the beatific vision of God after their cleansing is complete.
Importantly this means that purgatory is a sort of temporary purifying punishment which is typically thought of like a cleansing fire (see 1 Cor. 3:15). This begs the question, is purgatory a sort of physical, fiery place full of souls? Not essentially. I would think of purgatory as more of a state of being. A state of being post mortal death but before the final judgment of Christ at the Second Coming.
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH TEACH ABOUT PURGATORY?
In line with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the Church created her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent” (CCC 1031). If you know your Church history, then you know that those councils weren’t until the 15th and 16th centuries. So what was agreed and taught before those councils?
Early Church Fathers, including St. Augustine, Origen, and St. Clement were all advocates of prayer for the dead and a purging away of sin post-death. There was also a routine in the early Church of praying for the dead during liturgical worship and during the Eucharistic prayer. So, praying for the souls of the departed was a part of the faith and belief of the Church from the start.
Over the years, these information were unpacked and more clearly defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, who expounded on purgatory in greater depth thereby guiding the Church into infallible magisterial doctrine on purgatory.
WHAT IS THE BIBLICAL FOUNDATION OF PURGATORY?
Many who desire to find mention of purgatory in the Bible point to the initially referenced 1 Cor. 3:15 and 2 Macc. 12:45. 2 Maccabees is an early reference to interceding for the dead, and 1 Cor. is the foundational verse advocating a cleansing fire that takes place after death.
1 Cor. 3:15: “If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”
2 Macc. 12:45: “But if he was seeking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead so that they might be delivered from their sin.”
Side Note: Rev. 21:27 disagrees that nothing unclean will go into the presence of God; and many, if not most, of Christians, die in an unclean state of different degrees.
WHY IS PURGATORY NECESSARY?
Many Christians die with attachments to sin that must be gotten rid of before they can be united with God in a perfect union of love through all eternity. Purgatory is taking away this attachment to sin so that people can love God alone, and of course, this can be painful. Just as in your mortal life giving up things to which we have unhealthy attachments causes pain, so too will purgatory cause pain. But it is a cleansing for our good, not a torment for our punishment.
Therefore, a temporary period of purging is necessary in order to enjoy the presence and beauty of God that we were made for, whether we will pass through that purging while here on earth, through docility to the daily crosses given to us by God, or whether after death in purgatory.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE?
One of the well-known books about purgatory is Hungry Souls – Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory. This book recounts real stories of real encounters with souls suffering in purgatory as well as images taken from the Vatican’s “Museum of Purgatory” which is a museum of unique and verified relics of encounters with the Holy Souls.
Pray for the Holy Souls!
The Prayer for the Holy Souls in Purgatory by St. Gertrude the Great is a popular prayer for the souls of purgatory. In relation to tradition, Our Lord told St. Gertrude in a vision that saying the following prayer with love and devotion will release many souls from purgatory:
“Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.”