What we think is the right road
From the internet: “When we die, we will not be routed to a waiting room to await entrance to heaven. Either Christ’s death paid the full price of our sins or it didn’t. We will either go to hell or heaven.
There is no in between. The Catholic Church is promoting a lie with its position on purgatory.” We should finally and fully discard the idea of purgatory, because it’s not true.
But it’s the wrong road
Purgatory is true. For those destined to heaven but still needing purification, purgatory is the last step of loving but painful spiritual development before we see God face to face (1 Cor 13:12).
Non-Catholics maintain that purgatory is unnecessary, for Christ’s merits are fully satisfactory for our sins. That we are forgiven, however, does not mean that we are immune to the lure of future sin (Mt 7:21) or that there is no need for reparation after the forgiveness of sin. The redemption that Our Lord has won for us does not, in justice, eliminate our need to repair the damage we have done – to clean up after ourselves, to speak. After King David’s sin, for instance, he was forgiven (2 Sam 12:14), but he had to make amends through suffering the loss of his child. There is an important distinction, then, between forgiveness and reparation.
St. John tells us that nothing unclean will enter heaven (Rev 21:27). If we cannot in this life repair the damage we have done through unrepented venial sins (see 1 John 5:17) or if we have an “unpaid debt” for mortal sins forgiven but imperfectly repented of, then purgatory offers us the prospect of making reparation (see 1 Cor 3:15; Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030).
Purgatory, though, is not a second chance at salvation or a concentration camp. It is a munificent divine gift, for, as Our Lord told us, only the pure of heart will see God (Mt 5:8), and few of us, even those destined for heaven, die in perfect purity. From the earliest days of the Church, there was a sustaining belief in purgatory and in prayer for the dead (see, for example, Acts 9:36-43 and 2 Tm 1:16-18). The teaching about purgatory and prayer for the dead was defined by Councils in Lyon (1274), Florence (1439) and Trent (1563), but the doctrine was also present in embryonic form in the earliest days of the Church. For example, St. Monica, in the fourth century, asked her son to remember her soul in his Masses. Such an appeal would make no sense unless there were something other than heaven or hell (see also CCC 1031).
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained that purgatory is not some otherworldly concentration camp, but is, rather, “the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God, and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints.”
The great Dominican Father R.M. Garrigou-Lagrange (1877-1964) wrote that the teaching of purgatory “fortifies our sense of justice. It manifests the disorder, often unperceived, of venial faults.” A strong sense of purgatory, he wrote, carries with it a healthful purgation of sin here on earth.
As St. Augustine taught: “God created us without us; but He did not will to save us without us” (CCC 1847). For some, one of the most confusing points of Scripture is in Colossians: St. Paul rejoices in his suffering, for “I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church” (1:24). Christ’s merits lack nothing; but our sacred goal is to unite ourselves to Christ and to the Church in and through our prayers and sufferings (see 1 Peter 4:13). Here we see the wisdom of the traditional Church teaching that we should not “waste our suffering,” but offer it up – and join it to Our Lord’s perfect sacrifice. Jesus does not need it, but we do.
In short, we are in “this” together. The grammar is wrong, but it’s not “me and Jesus”; it’s “we and Jesus.” And that “we” includes the souls in purgatory, who pray for us as we ought to pray for them. Those in purgatory rejoice heartily, for theirs will be the Kingdom of God; but they suffer terribly, too, for theirs is an acute awareness of the unspeakable evil of sin in general, and of their actual sin in particular, as they continue our common journey of trying, through the grace of God, to become holy (Lv 19:2, 11:45; 1 Pt 1:15). “Purgatory,” said Pope Emeritus Benedict, “follows by an inner necessity from the idea of penance, the idea of the constant readiness for reform which marks the forgiven sinner.”
Catholic and Orthodox Bibles make this point in 2 Maccabees 12:45, where a Jewish military officer commands sacrifice for men killed in battle: “He made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” Christ’s Bride is composed of the Church Triumphant (those in heaven), the Church Suffering (those destined for heaven once they are cleansed of their sin), and the Church Militant (those of us still working out our salvation “with fear and trembling,” as St. Paul put it in Philippians 2:12; and “Lumen Gentium,” 49).
The beautiful teaching of purgatory ought to remind us that we should always pray for the souls in purgatory. Moreover, solid catechesis about purgatory should help to cure the prideful presumption that such prayer is not necessary because everyone, after all, goes straight to heaven after death and the particular judgment (CCC 1022). A reflection of this is found in omnipresent white vestments at requiem Masses. If, and to the extent that, such celebratory vestments discourage prayer for the dead, one seems justified in suggesting that violet – and better, black – vestments ought to be chosen, reminding us that those who have died yet live in Christ (Luke 20:38), but may need prayer if in purgatory.
Never let the moment pass: During the Roman Canon of the Mass, the priest says, “Remember also, Lord, your servants N. and N., who have gone before us with the sign of faith and rest in the sleep of peace.” The priest then joins his hands and prays briefly for those who have died. So should we, knowing that they pray, too – for us. Deo gratias!
Deacon James H. Toner serves at Our Lady of Grace Church in Greensboro.