Purgatory an extension of God’s mercy
November 9, 2021
“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This admonition by Jesus (Mt 5:48) sets a standard that few of us are likely to attain while on earth. So, upon death, how can we hope to be sufficiently purified to stand before the perfect light of God in heaven “where nothing impure can enter” (Rev 21:27)?
It is then, the Church teaches, that God offers us his mercy in the form of purgatory.
In this month of November, the Church remembers and encourages prayers for our beloved dead in purgatory, as well as the poor souls in purgatory – especially those who have no one else to pray for them.
But why do we pray for these people, and what is this place or state of being called purgatory?
The Catholic Voice spoke with Father James Mason, president-rector and formation advisor at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis about the scriptural and theological foundations for purgatory and the Catholic practice of offering sacrifices and prayers for the dead.
Father Mason, a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is a nationally known retreat leader. He has led 30-day retreats at the Broom Tree Retreat Center in Irene, South Dakota, where he also served as director for 10 years.
He also has taught a course on the “Spirituality of the Diocesan Priesthood” in the summer program of the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, and has produced audio presentations on purgatory, discernment of spirits, the nature of marriage and other spiritual and theological topics.
Q. Why do you think almost all people need the purification of purgatory?
The first place I would probably look to is the Catechism (of the Catholic Church). It’s a short section, numbers 1030 to 1032. It begins by telling us, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation, but after the death they undergo purification …”
It’s this understanding that I know with myself: It’s very likely I will die still attached to the things that are not of God. I will still have certain disordered passions, and the teaching of purgatory is really about God’s extended divine mercy, allowing me to enter into his perfection.
In today’s world, we sometimes move into a little bit of confusion. We probably have a lower standard than what is true. That is, there might be the good-guy standard, or even there might be a standard of what (Catholic author) Peter Kreeft calls the song of hell, “I did it my way.” I get to decide.
In fact, we have to look at Scripture to find out what the standard is. Jesus tells us, “Love one another as I have loved you; be perfect as my heavenly father is perfect.” In Revelation (21:27), “Nothing unclean can enter into heaven.” In Matthew (12:36), “I tell you on the day of judgment, people will render an account for every careless word they speak.”
So there’s the depth of the judgment. We kind of underestimate our level of fallenness, and even God’s perfection. So this understanding, that there’s a means in which I can enter perfection through this purification. It is fascinating. You even go back to the Old Testament with the Book of Job. It’s 2,500 years old, between the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Job puts forward (in Job 31): “If I have made an agreement with my eyes, and entertained any thoughts against a maiden … if my heart has been enticed towards a woman …” Now, no one in the world at that time is putting forward this high a standard, that even my thoughts are going to be held accountable before God.
So that’s why, yes, most people will, if they die in the Lord’s grace, still need some purification in order to enter into that perfection, which is God.
Q. Why must we be perfected in order to stand in God’s presence?
Jesus tells us about the new wine needing new wine skin. … When we enter into the Trinity, we cannot bring any sinfulness, or anything that is not of God in. And so it all must be, in a way, chipped away.
You can see the scriptural verses that they use in the Catechism. They go back to the Old Testament, with Second Maccabees where they are praying for those soldiers who had died. They had a little talisman, they had little lucky charms, which were against their faith, that they found on them. So they prayed, and they offered sacrifices.
It quotes St. Ephrem, the doctor of the Church, who says, “If an army of Maccabees was able to expiate the sins of their fallen comrades, imagine how much more supernatural good is done by priests, or the sons through prayers and holy offering.”
The Catechism also quotes the Book of Job when he offers sacrifices and prayers for his deceased sons and his children. So this was really an established belief and understanding. So look at Scripture, look at Tradition, look at the Magisterium and its teaching, and then look at reason. All of them fall in line, supporting this understanding, or even I could say this gift of purgatory.
Q. As you mentioned earlier, purgatory is part of God’s mercy. Is there anything else you could add to explain how purgatory is an extension of God’s mercy toward us?
I think C.S. Lewis probably offers one of the best examples when he writes, “Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells, and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you for these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.’ Should we not reply, ‘With submission, Sir, and if there’s no objection, I’d rather be clean first. It may hurt, you know, even so, Sir.’”
And so there’s wonderful mercy of God having a means to completely cleanse us. I think that’s why C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” is probably his best allegory. And it’s an allegory, so it’s not meant to be taken literally. But each of the characters has to decide whether they will die too, or allow themselves to be purified of this disordered attachment in order to enter into the perfection that we are called to.
Q. You cited some of the biblical evidence that such a place as purgatory or a process of purification exists. You mentioned Job. What other biblical evidence is there pointing to this reality?
Well, what the early Church would look at, and the Church fathers, is Matthew 5:25 and 26, along with Luke 12:56 and 59. It’s a judgment scene in which you’re talking about settling with your opponent along the way, because otherwise you’ll be thrown into prison. “And I say to you, ‘You will not be released until you’ve paid the last penny.’”
Or more clearly maybe is 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, where it says, “Each man’s work will become manifest, for the day will disclose it, and that day is the day of judgment there, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each 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 a fire.”
You’ll also have 1 Peter 3:18-20, where it talks about Jesus going down to the dead, where he preached to spirits in prison who had once been disobedient. And so you need to have answers for those passages. If somebody says, “Well, I don’t believe in this purifying stage, or this purifying process,” then what do those passages mean? And how is it that the early Church taught it so clearly?
Q. Are there other things that the early Church taught about purgatory?
Once again, the Catechism cites St. Gregory the Great when he writes, “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that before Final Judgment there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.”
So they use St. Ephrem, they use St. Gregory the Great. Even in a sense I suppose we could say, certainly with St. Monica when she tells her son, “Remember me at the altar,” that this was really a time-honored tradition and understanding of it. It was not controversial in any sense that we offered Masses for our beloved dead. We offered prayers for our beloved dead.
Q. Has the Church’s understanding of purgatory evolved over the centuries?
It’s stable. Maybe what has evolved, maybe, are the images of purgatory, and this is speculative theology in the sense that we know of the process, but (not) exactly how it works. … You might read more during the Middle Ages that it almost sounded like an antechamber to hell, when in fact … it’s an antechamber to heaven. You could read the images of St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510). She’s talking about this happiness of purgatory, because you know you’re moving towards heaven, but you’re also believing in God’s justice and this need to be cleansed.
Q. I suppose it’s very difficult to come up with a solid idea of what purgatory is actually like, or how it happens. Is that right?
The Church doesn’t say more than she can. And that shows a level of humility, and a level of prudence. So you just have basically these three paragraphs on purgatory in the Catechism, which clearly states this teaching. But the exact mechanics of it, and how it works, well, that’s God’s design. We can certainly have private revelation by certain saints who might be invited into some of those things, but it doesn’t go to the level of doctrinal teaching.
Q. Is it possible to achieve sufficient holiness, or experience adequate purification during our lives, to enable us to enter heaven immediately upon death?
You could say, when Jesus on the cross says to the good thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Perhaps his purification was his repentance, and crucifixion, and proclaiming Jesus as Lord, and asking to be with him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That purification allows him to go straight to heaven, and it certainly is possible. How, and how often it happens, I cannot tell you.
Q. Is it safe to say that some of the saints have achieved that level of holiness?
I think so. Particularly those saints who might have suffered a level of purification, this type of “dark night of the soul” – the purification of your senses, and finding union with God. Yeah, I would think so.
Q. Or possibly those who’ve been martyred?
Yes, a washing in their blood as a witness to Christ.
Q. How can our prayers for the dead help them while they’re in purgatory?
In 1 John 5:16 there’s this remarkable saying: “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God, and he will give him life.” I remember I was in law school and an evangelical was talking to me about, what is this mortal and venial sin? I showed him this passage; he had never seen it before. This understanding, like, “Wow, my prayer can help remove venial sin and give life to others.” And that continues on, because our God is a God of the living, not the dead (cf. Mt 22:32). And of course, throughout St. Paul and the Gospels, we’re exhorted to pray for one another. Well, those prayers are not useless; they’re efficacious. How exactly it works, I can’t explain, except that it is an offering, a sacrificial offering. It is a prayer for another.
At every Mass I really invite Catholics to look at the missal, and look at the first three eucharistic prayers. In every Mass we pray for our beloved dead. I would ask them, “Are you naming your beloved dead at that time?” And then also in the prayers of the faithful, we almost always end with a prayer for the beloved dead. … I name a bunch of my friends whose parents are deceased, and my own family. And actually in the first eucharistic prayer in the rubrics, which are the words and actions of the Mass, they tell the priest whose hands are opened up to stop at this moment, and bring them in, (and) to slow down. I used to teach this at my parishes, to name in your heart your beloved dead.
Therese of Lisieux, when she was 7 years old and she received her first holy Communion, her mother had died just a few years prior. She was crying, and there were some adults who said, “Oh, she’s missing her mom.” That night she’s writing in her journal, and she goes, “No, those weren’t tears because I miss my mom. Those were tears of joy because I was in union with my mom in the Eucharist.” So this sacrificial offering, and this union, particularly in the Mass, I think many, many Catholics do not understand it, and therefore aren’t participating in it.
Q. How can the experience of purgatory be reduced through indulgences?
It goes back once again to prayer. Sometimes we just think when we pray for another, “OK, we offer a prayer.” But we can also offer up a type of prayer as a sacrifice for another. Almsgiving is a type of sacrificial giving. A pilgrimage can be a type of sacrifice, and that in itself is a prayer.
It’s really important for us, I think, (since) we are so individualistic that we forget the merits, of course of Jesus Christ, but also of all those in the communion of the saints. These things we offer, they go towards basically this purifying, or this shedding of my attachments. I’m just speculating here, (but) maybe it’s through those prayers, and the prayer-indulgences, that I am able to see these things that I can no longer desire to be attached to. I’m no longer drawn to them in some way.
There’s the story of the silversmith, and as he’s purifying the silver at very, very hot temperatures. And if he burns it too hot, he’ll ruin the silver. The perfect temperature is when the silversmith can see his image reflected in the burning silver, and impurities coming out. And that’s when they’re released in a sense, drawn out. Of course that image is Christ. When Christ sees himself in us, that’s what’s going on. And Michelangelo, when he was sculpting Moses, someone said, “How do you see Moses in that block of marble?” He said, “I simply chip away everything that’s not Moses.”
And so, through indulgences, and being forgiven of our sin, perhaps we become aware (of our attachments) and ask Jesus to chip those things away. Because God proposes, he doesn’t impose. That continues until my will is so in union with his that we have one will. But yeah, it’s a mystery, right? But it’s a beautiful one, and November is such a great month to reflect on it.
Q. Is there anything else that you’d like to add to help us understand purgatory?
I would just encourage a change of attitude. There seems to be maybe a little bit of embarrassment about the Church’s teaching on purgatory, or that we just kind of put it away to the side. Instead we should say: “This wonderful divine mercy of our Lord, it’s an incredibly hopeful doctrine, and so something that we can be proud of. The Lord loves us enough that he’s given us a means to purify everything that is not of him in order that we may be one (with him).”