Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead

     Why the Protestant Reformers chose to remove the doctrine of purgatory and praying for the dead from their creed is incomprehensible. The belief and practice are older than Christianity, and almost universal.

The Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is “a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in Gods 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, [CCC] 1031; cf. 1472). The fact that the Church has taught this doctrine since her founding by Christ, is sufficient for Catholics to believe in the existence of purgatory, and of the usefulness of prayers for the dead. It is also comforting for a Catholic, already convinced in the authority of the Church, to know that the doctrine can be clearly found in Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

It is also believed that the prayers and sacrifices of the faithful on earth and especially the holy and acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar can help those souls in purgatory. Though there is no ecclesiastical decision in the matter, it is a common custom to pray to the souls in purgatory that they will intercede for us with God. "I do not believe it would be possible to find any joy comparable to that of a soul in purgatory, except the joy of the Blessed in Paradise.  For every sight, however little, that can be gained of God exceeds every pain and every joy that man can conceive without it" (Saint Catherine of Genoa).

Long before the coming of Christ, the people of God prayed and offered sacrifices for the dead. An example of this can be found in Second Book of Maccabees, where Judas Maccabeeus “took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking 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, that they might be delivered from their sin” (43-46).

     Protestants will try to make the argument that the Maccabees books are not in their canon of sacred Scripture. The rejection of the Alexandrian canon of Scripture is no argument against purgatory as Catholics hold to the same canon of Scripture used by our Lord and the Apostles. Protestants use the Scriptural canon assembled by Jews who had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. This rejection, made by modern Reformers, bears no weight, when compared to antiquity. St. Isidore Hispalensis (ca. 560 – 636) says, “the Books of the Maccabees, although separated by the Hebrews as Apocrypha, are by the church of Christ honored, and proclaimed as Divine books” (lib, 6). In the earliest ages of Christianity we find the Fathers of the Church quoting the Maccabees, as well as other Scriptures.

The General Council of Trent, Sess. 4, declared the two Maccabees to be Divine books.

      “The Council of Trent, in defining the Divine inspiration of those books, has only followed the constant and unanimous tradition of the Church, and the examples of other councils. some of which were even general. For those books had been reckoned among the sacred writings by the General Council of Florence, held in 1439, under Eugenius IV.; by a council of seventy bishops, held in Rome in 494, under Pope Gelasius; by Pope St. Innocent I. in his famous epistles, written in 405, to st. Exuperius, bishop of Tholouse; by the third Council of Carthage, held in 391, at which St: Augustine assisted; by St. Augustine himself; in his work on Christian Doctrine, book 22. chap. 28, and in the City of God, book, 18. chap. 36; in a word, by many other fathers.”

The Books of Maccabees must be allowed, even by those who do not receive them as canonical, to be, at least, authentic records; as such, then, they bear undeniable testimony of the belief and practice of the Jews of the present day, who, surely, have not borrowed them from Catholics. Seeing, then, the doctrine of purgatory and praying for the dead to have been held by God's people 150 years before Christ, what are we to think, of the candor or those who assert it to be an invention of the dark ages?

The belief of a middle state is supported by many other texts of the Old and New Testaments.

“As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your captives free from the waterless pit” (Zach. 9:11).

That pit cannot be hell, as out of hell there is no redemption. Consequently it must be a place, of temporal punishment from which redemption is had by the blood of the testament.

     “Each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:13-15).

This text hardly requires any comment. It is clear that although the works of man have been substantially good, and pleasing to Almighty God, yet on account of many sins, he must be cleansed by a purging and punishing, yet saving fire, before he can be admitted into that sanctuary; into which “nothing unclean shall enter it,” Rev. 21:27. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Matt. 12:36). Would every idle word consign a person to the everlasting punishments of hell? If so, who will be saved? There must then be some temporal punishments prepared after this life for trifling faults, which we call venial sins.

According to the same Evangelist there are sins that “shall not be forgiven neither in this world nor in the world to come,” Matt. 12:32. Does this not clearly imply that some sins may be atoned for in the world to come?

“Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:25-26). The last text I am going to quote, establishes the doctrine of purgatory so very plainly, that it appears strange how it can be misunderstood.

     “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:18-20).

Christ would not have been preaching to the damned souls in hell, as it is acknowledged by all, that there is no redemption for them. How then can the above text be understood, unless by admitting a place of temporal punishment, in which were confined those who had not fully satisfied the justice of God before departing this life.

The doctrine of the existence of purgatory is founded on the belief, that very often, after the guilt and the eternal punishment are taken away by the mercy of God, upon the sinner's sincere repentance, there still remains, on account of the deficiencies of that repentance, something due to the infinite justice of God, something to be expiated either in this world or in the next. Nothing indeed can be more clearly established in Scripture.

Adam was cast out of the earthly paradise, he and all his posterity punished with death and many miseries, after his sin of disobedience had been forgiven, and his right to heaven restored to him.

    King David after his many serious crimes were forgiven, and his sincere repentance was punished with the death of his child (2 Sam. 12:7-23).

If the justice of God has often inflicted temporal punishments after the guilt and the everlasting punishments were remitted, it follows that if the person dies before he has suffered that temporal punishment, he dies indebted to God's justice; and must undoubtedly pay that debt before he can enter into heaven.

The writings of the holy fathers of both the Eastern and the western church clearly prove that from the earliest dawn of Christianity, the belief of a purgatory was general and widespread in the church.

Tertullian, (Rome, 160 - 220?), says,  “In short, if we understand that prison of which the Gospel speaks to be Hades, and if we interpret the last farthing to be the light offence which is to be expiated there before the resurrection, no one will doubt that the soul undergoes some punishments in Hades, without prejudice to the fullness of the resurrection, after which recompense will be made through the flesh also” (The Soul, [inter A.D. 208-212]). And again, in his book, The Crown, "We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries."

     St. Clement in the same age tells us, St. Peter “taught them, among other works of mercy, to bury the dead, and diligently perform their funeral rites, and also to pray and give alms for them” (First Epistle on St. Peter).

     St. Basil the Great (Caesarea, 329 -379)  (Homilies on the Psalms, [ante A.D. 370]), “A man who is under sentence of death, knowing that there is One who saves, One who delivers, says: "In You I have hoped, save me" from my inability "and deliver me" from captivity. I think that the noble athletes of God, who have all wrestled all their lives with the invisible ene­mies, after they have escaped all of their persecutions and have come to the end of life, are examined by the prince of this world; and if they are found to have any wounds from their wrestling, any stains or effects of sin, they are detained. If, however, they are found unwounded and without stain, they are, as unconquered, brought by Christ into their rest.”

     St. Augustine of Hippo, (354-430), "We read in the books of Maccabees (2 Macc 12:43) that sacrifice was offered for the dead. But even if it were found nowhere in the Old Testament writings, the authority of the universal Church which is clear on this point is of no small weight, where in the prayers of the priest poured forth to the Lord God at His altar the commendation of the dead has its place" (Grace and Free Choice).

     "Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead find relief through the piety of their friends and relatives who are still alive, when the Sacrifice of the Mediator is offered for them, or when alms are given in the church” (On Faith, Hope and Love).

St. John Chrysostom (Antioch, 349-407), “Let us somehow assist them (the baptized). But how, and in what way? By praying for them and by entreating others to pray for them, by constantly giving alms to the poor on their behalf...Not in vain was it decreed by the Apostles that in the awesome Mysteries remembrance should be made of the departed. They know that here there was much gain for them, much benefit.” (Homilies on Phillipians,A.D. 398/404).

     St. Cyprian says, “It is one thing to be cast into prison, and not to go out thence till he pay the last farthing; another, presently to receive the reward of faith; one thing to be afflicted with pains for sins to be expiated, and purged long with fire; another, to have purged all sins by sufferings” (Epis. 52, ad Antone).

St. Ambrose wrote, “But whereas St. Paul says, yet so as by fire, he shows indeed that he shall be saved, but yet shall suffer the punishment of fire, he may be saved, and not tormented forever, as the infidels are with everlasting fire” (Cap. 3, Epis. ad Cor).

St. Jerome wrote, “In the same age which he said, you shall not go out of prison till hou shalt have paid for even thy little sins” “Commentary on Matt. 5).

In the same age, St. Cyril of Jerusalem says: “We beseech God for all those who have died before us, believing the obsecration of that holy and dreadful sacrifice, which is put on the altar, to be the greatest help of the souls for which it is offered” (Catch. Mystogog 5).

It would fill volumes to quote all those passages from the holy Fathers, which prove the belief in purgatory and prayers for the dead, is as old as Christianity. Those whom I have quoted lived twelve, thirteen, and fourteen centuries before the pretended Reformation, and were of course better judges of genuine apostolical tradition than the late Reformers.

If these holy and learned doctors, some of whom were the immediate successors of the Apostles, did not think themselves guilty of superstition in praying for the dead, but declared that in doing so, they followed and obeyed the teachings of the Apostles; neither are we guilty of superstition in believing and doing as they did.

An objection against purgatory is found in the following words of Scripture: “If a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie” (Eccles.11:3).

Admitting, for the sake of argument, the Scripture here speaks of the soul after death, which indeed is highly probable, how does this undermine the doctrine of purgatory?

Catholics believe, that there are only two eternal states after death, viz. the state of glory and the state of damnation. If the soul departs in the state of grace, it shall be for ever in that state, although it may have some venial sins to satisfy, for, which may for a while delay the beginning of its happiness. If it dies in the state of mortal sin, and an enemy of God, it shall be forever damned. Here are two everlasting states, which may be meant by the north and south of the above text. This is the interpretation of St Jerome, St. Gregory Pope, St. Bernard, St. Thomas, etc. The judgment of the Fathers is so unanimous on this point of Scripture that it is surprising that Protestants, instead of admitting it, vainly try to discover the denial of purgatory in the text.

If then the Protestant continues to assert that he cannot find either purgatory or the practice of praying for the dead in Scripture, the Catholic Church answer, that they find both the doctrine and the practice very clearly in Holy Scripture.

There is also another objection that must be addressed before we finish with the subject.  Protestant believe that the doctrine of purgatory casts a reproach on Christ as a Savior of sinners, representing his obedience and suffering as insufficient to atone for their sins.

This objection will appear very trifling when you understand that the Catholic Church teaches, that the merits of Jesus Christ are of themselves far more than sufficient to atone for all the sins of mankind. But Jesus Christ requires our cooperation; and it depends upon the degree of our cooperation, whether those infinite merits of Christ are applied to us in a more or less abundant measure.

Although Christ's merits and satisfaction for sinners are of infinite value, the benefit we shall reap of those infinite merits will be proportionate to our endeavors in subduing our corrupt nature, our sinful inclinations, and conforming to the will of God. he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 4:6).

He, then, who sows so sparingly in this world as to remain, in his dying moment, indebted to the Divine Justice, will, after his death, be compelled to pay to the last farthing what, by more strenuous endeavors, he might have paid in this world.

The belief in a place of temporal punishment, after death, is far from being unreasonable from a philosophical standpoint. Here is what a Christian philosopher might say: the soul of man ceasing to dwell in his body, is summoned to appear before the tribunal of God; his works, good or bad, speak for him; the law, which he has religiously observed, stands up in his defense to get him crowned in the assembly of the saints. A slight transgression, a shortcoming, hardly perceptible, a small failing, inseparable from mortal nature, is perceived among a multitude of meritorious deeds. You, who acknowledge a just God, who adore a merciful God, and yet a God hostile to all sin, incapable by nature of admitting into his home anything sullied with guilt: question the fate of this soul, righteous indeed, though stained with sin; a friend to God, yet bearing iniquity in its heart. Shall its sins be placed along with its virtues, its weaknesses and its strengths be crowned alike? No, you say, this cannot be. But, must this unfortunate soul be eternally reprimanded without mercy? Shall the purity of its faith, the liveliness of its hope, the good works without number or measure it has performed, plead for it in vain for mercy? Far be it from us to believe this. By thinking so, we should attack the infinite excellence and perfections of the sovereign Lord of this world.

No, God does not rank all sin the same. The man with a few blemishes and the man mired in serious sin are not equal in the sight of God. He will purify the one and cast out the other. God is at once the God of all justice, and the God of all sanctity. A holy soul, but marred by even a slight stain, will not enter his mansion, because he is the God of purity. Yet, because He is also the God of justice, He will reform the soul, He will complete the sheen of its virtues, establish the purity of its works and then will place it in His glory.

There is the solid foundation of the belief of purgatory, and such is the conclusion we are to draw from the incontestable attributes of our God. Of all the tenets of the Catholic Church, purgatory is the most widely spread and the most generally admitted. The knowledge of a God, both just and holy, has united the most opposed religions. Purgatory admits to a delay in the eternal reward, during which the just soul is fully sanctified. An offended God does not damn as a result of venial sins, His wrath does not extend to the offender's death. God does not always confer his rewards immediately, He is sometimes restrained by the faults of a just, yet guilty man. This, the sages of antiquity have taught, this, the Islamic nations profess in their Koran; in this the Jews, both ancient and modern agree with the Catholics.

The greatest part of mankind, all that believe in divine revelation, except those who follow the Protestant Reformers, and vast numbers of those who are guided by reason alone, agree in the belief of a place of temporal punishment, and in the practice of praying for the dead.  

© 2004 – Victor R. Claveau

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"O turn to Jesus, Mother! turn,

And call Him by His tenderest names;

Pray for the holy souls that burn

This hour amid the cleansing flames."

-F. Faber: Hymn to our Blessed Lady

for the Souls in Purgatory. (19th cent.)