Diocese of Springfield - Cape Girardeau at 601 South Jefferson Ave., Springfield, MO 65806-3143 US - Purgatory and Prayer for the Dead November 4, 2011
Purgatory and Prayer for the Dead
November 4, 2011
“PURGATORY: A state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven.” —Catechism of the Catholic Church 1031; cf. 1472
Among the most misunderstood dogmas of the faith is that of purgatory. As November is the month in which we customarily have special remembrance of the dead in our prayers, it is fitting that we again consider the topic.
If the Bible and the Church’s ancient and constant tradition did not affirm purgatory, I suspect we would notice its glaring absence. Many other revealed truths are illuminated because of purgatory, and presume an awareness of it. Certainly, the term itself is not biblical, but merely a description of this truth found in Scripture and believed by the faithful. In many instances, Scripture alludes to the reality that in order to see God “face to face” in the vision of heaven, we must be pure (see, for example Mt 5:48; Heb 12:14; Jas 3:2; Rv 21:27). This beatific vision of seeing God is what the saints in heaven enjoy, and this is our goal too: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). What God’s grace and our cooperation do not finish in this life must be completed after we die. God finishes his work; this is what purgatory refers to.
Along with the need for total purification to see God, there is the reality of the communion of saints. More
specifically, the reality that all those in the communion of the body of Christ—the living and the dead—are united to one another by the life and love of Christ. Those who make up this communion of saints are those alive now on earth, those souls being purified through purgatory, and those souls in heaven. All of these make up the Church, the mystical body of Christ, and traditionally have been referred to as the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant respectively.
Because all are part of this communion, united to one another even after death, we can assist one another through our prayer and sacrifice after death, even as we assist those among us who are still alive. Death does not destroy the communion of love and grace which Christ brings about in his Church. St. Paul certainly appeared to be praying for his dead friend, Onesiphorus, in 2 Tm 1:16-18. We also have the account in 2 Machabees (2 Mac 12:38-46) in which prayer for the dead is lauded. There is evidence in the catacombs that Christians of the first centuries continued this, something carried on in an unbroken way down to the present.
Jesus himself apparently alluded to purgatory when he spoke about those who commit the “unforgivable sin” against the Holy Spirit, noting they “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt 12:32). St. Peter attested that Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pt 3:18-20; 4:6).
There are many other biblical allusions to purgatory. This should not surprise us. Unbroken Christian belief and the Church’s authoritative affirmation confirm what we know by a kind of spiritual intuition: the fire of God’s love will perfect, purify, and prepare those who need it, in some mysterious way after death, as long as we die in God’s friendship (without unrepentant mortal sin and in a state of grace).
Our prayers and the penances that we offer for others are to atone for sins committed and already forgiven. We must remember that even after we have been forgiven of the guilt of our sins, there are repercussions that occurred because of them for which we must atone. God treats us with mercy and justice. It is very similar to a good parent who forgives a child, but then takes away a privilege to restore right order—again, mercy and justice!
Understood rightly, the belief in purgatory is a belief in love, the love of God which conquers all things, the love in which we participate as members of Christ’s body, the Church. With this in mind, let us assist our beloved dead—those whom we know and those whom we do not—with our prayer and penance.